In what is literally a decades-long fight, the state of Montana, along with Wyoming, wants the United States Supreme Court to rule on the controversial plan to put coal ports in Washington for easier export to places like Japan and India.
Those who want to stop coal from being consumed are happy with the ruling from the Washington state courts which has stopped the ports. Those who stand against coal believe the courts should rule on coal. In other words, stop the coal, stop the problem.
Like so many things, that's too simple of an equation, and it's not the truth.
This is really not a fight about coal. It's about whether a state can manipulate a federal law to deny commerce with another state. It's not about coal; it's about the law.
We'd point out that we have raised concerns about relying on coal previously. However, we have also repeatedly pointed out that reliability and heavy peak load times are also something utilities need to be ready to handle, and coal would seem to be a possible solution.
We also believe that the global economy, coupled with a growing concern about carbon-based fossil fuels will take care of itself. In other words, if consumers want energy, want it coal-less, and are willing to pay for that, then the markets will adjust accordingly.
However, this is not about blocking coal, even though that's what the legislation in Washington has done. Instead, we believe the issue is about how far Washington can contort the issue such that it will violate federal standards. As one person suggested, the state of Washington appears to be weaponizing the Clean Air Act just to block coal.
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The question isn't one of fossil fuels, energy or climate change as some have argued. Instead, it's whether one state can apply the Environmental Protection Agency rule as Washington has done, and in doing so, shut out other states from doing business there. This, as Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said, will be a test of the Commerce Clause in the United States Constitution.
That's why we believe the United States Supreme Court would do well to consider this issue. This is a legitimate and timely fight between two states, both of which see the next generation's survival as tied to the outcome of this suit.
Wyoming and Montana need to have a coal port within a reasonable distance to ensure the coal prices remain competitive. They claim that Washington has used the Clean Air Act improperly and it doesn't allow the state to deny the permitting of new coal ports. Washington claims that runoff from the coal would pollute waterways and damage wetlands.
It's not surprising this fight is coming via Washington. The state recently took action against coal, ruling that coal power would be banned after 2025. This seems like it unfairly targets coal.
Coal still has environmental challenges — and those are serious. But, we have repeatedly called for a mix of usages to balance our energy portfolio, ensure a reliable power supply, and maximize a cheap, reliable source.
The reality is that one state's overreach may not only cause economic pain in Montana and Wyoming, but it may mean the power is not as reliable.
We hope the Supreme Court takes this challenge because it will take some time to settle. And the Supreme Court seems like the proper venue. We also believe that deciding a case like this will help future fights that are bound to happen as landlocked states like Montana and Wyoming continue to want to use natural resources responsibly.
Sometimes it seems as if joining big national lawsuits is more a publicity stunt than anything. But, this lawsuit from Montana Attorney General Tim Fox is a great way to settle a dispute that has been going on for far too long. We're glad that we may finally have an answer to this vexing problem in Washington.
This editorial originally appeared in the Billings Gazette.