Unsafe in Montana — and Your State, Too

Even as more people demand climate protection laws, legislators in Big Sky Country (and every other state) are partnering with the rapacious fossil-fuel industry to squelch all safeguards.

One thing we have learned about fossil capital: It isn’t going to just sit on its hands and watch those massive profits slip from its grasp. As those of us in the climate justice movement work to transition away from dirty energy, the fossil fuel industry is amping up its own efforts to preserve the status quo on all fronts.

Here in Western Montana, we’ve seen the direct results of those efforts as the 2023 legislature passed virtually everything on the industry’s wish list.

Three years ago our local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America formed an Ecosocialist Working Group. The five of us had experience working on campaigns to disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure while promoting cleaner, renewable energy, and we thought our city ready for such an effort. A relatively progressive university town, it’s home to numerous environmental nonprofits and climate-oriented civic organizations. Two DSA members sit on the city council.

We decided our working group could be most effective if we collaborated with an international organization called SAFE Cities ( an offshoot of Stand.earth), whose mission aligned with ours. SAFE (Stand Against Fossil fuel Expansion) chapters had run successful campaigns in various regions to pass land use regulations and code revisions with the goal of halting new fossil fuel infrastructure.

For instance, Portland, Oregon prohibited oil tank cars. Northampton, Massachusetts is promoting electrification through building code reform, while Montgomery County, Maryland took it a step further, approving a near ban on fossil fuels in new buildings. Cities in California were banning “natural gas” (methane) infrastructure and fossil fuel storage facilities.

Our group was inspired to do something similar in our small, mountain town of Missoula, Montana. But as I’ve said, the fossil fuel industry and their clients in government were not sitting idly by.

Destroying Democratic Process

Recognizing the threat to their profits, they began crafting laws that would preempt the efforts of local entities, placing all power to regulate infrastructure at the state level. A mostly Republican-led effort, these laws are often advanced in the name of “national energy security” or “all-of-the-above” energy policy.

Denton photo from Fergus County Sheriff's Office

Here in Montana, where oil, gas, and coal production are large parts of the economy and where Republicans have a supermajority in the legislature, several preemption bills worked their way through the process and our Republican governor signed them into law. These bills are supported by private, investor-owned utilities, the coal and gas lobby, and various trade unions whose hoodwinked members don’t realize how short-term and dangerous their jobs are and how a just transition would be much more beneficial in the long run.

According to the right-leaning Billings Gazette, “there were at least two dozen bills this session to limit the regulatory power of local governments or reduce the voting clout of city residents.” This overt attack on home rule, in which local policies and services are decided locally, is an industry strategy being applied across the country in village, town, city, and county legislatures as well as in statehouses. Thus voters and their elected officials — the pride of the USA — are being effectively shut out of any semblance of democratic process.

Here in Montana all the recent bills aimed specifically at preventing cities from facilitating renewable energy development passed easily. There is now a law preventing cities from requiring new construction to accommodate wiring for solar energy, or charging stations for electric vehicles, or batteries, or solar panels!

The most egregious example of industry control is HB 971, which bars state regulators like the Montana Department of Environmental Quality from including analyses of greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts when conducting comprehensive reviews of large projects. No matter what the science tells them, no matter how much wildfire smoke chokes them, they are required by law to turn a blind eye. Other bills are aimed at discouraging the purchase of electric vehicles by adding taxes to charging stations or increasing registration fees. The intent in all these bills is clear: protecting fossil fuel profit margins. An already feeble Montana Environmental Protection Act is now on life support.

Who’ll Pay the Price

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Montana history knows industry control of politicians is nothing new. From copper barons to timber corporations, big money has always called the shots. Ordinary citizens are left to clean up the mess, with all the health costs and environmental remediation that implies. But cleaning up runaway climate[MS1]  impacts on a “hothouse Earth” will not be as “easy” as the ongoing four-decades-so-far SuperFund decontamination of the Clark Fork River basin.

All of this is to say that our well intentioned local efforts to enact even the mildest reform — collaborating with progressive environmentalists and working through establishment institutions — has brought us no closer to meaningful carbon reductions. Contrary to the title of Naomi Klein’s 2014 book This Changes Everything, not much has changed in the Rocky Mountain heartland, except a hardening of reactionary opposition to anything even remotely suggesting what they derisively (and uncomprehendingly) term “woke” policy.

There is no “blockadia” ready to take direct action, and even mild protest is steadily being criminalized. The only plan put forth by Democrats and progressives is to vote harder.

It is a sad fact that the limited success enjoyed in other regions of the nation has only served as a wakeup call to fossil capital here in the Rockies. It has actually strengthened their resolve to not be caught flat-footed as local entities try to enact regulations to protect people’s and communities’ health and safety.

With Colorado River reservoirs and the Great Salt Lake on the verge of drying up, our famous glaciers melting, fire seasons lengthening, and smoke now filling our valleys and lungs from early summer through fall, a tragic, painful reckoning is inevitable. The Earth system will have the last say, with all the preventable, unneeded suffering that implies.

One thing the Montana State Constitution still guarantees is the right of citizens to change law through the ballot initiative process. To that end, climate justice allies are now exploring a Local Choice Energy Act. As it becomes more and more obvious that our profit-driven, investor-owned utility intends to cling desperately to fossil fuel dinosaurs, we hope that more and more citizens will see the need to leave that undemocratic model in the dustbin of history. There is still time for Montana to embrace a clean energy future, but the clock is ticking.

Dave Jones is a retired fishing guide and autodidact living in western Montana. He is the father of three amazing women and husband to a fourth. He is a founding member of the Zootown Zapatistas and is active with DSA as well as with System Change Not Climate Change.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission