Governor Brian Schweitzer offered 37 amendments Thursday to a controversial bill that would restrict the conditions under which citizens may appeal permits to energy development projects.
Sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, House Bill 483 aims to streamline the Department of Environmental Quality’s permitting process for new energy development projects, such as coal-fired power plants, by placing strict new limits on public challenges.
In a statement, Gov. Schweitzer says his proposed amendments ensure that “the complex details of the bill are fair and equal to all parties involved in a challenge.” The amendments also attempt to clarify what he considered confusing aspects of the bill’s language.
While conservation groups like the Montana Conservation Voters had hoped Gov. Schweitzer would veto the bill, Program Director Sarah Cobbler says she is grateful that Schweitzer listened to the concerns of the conservation community.
“We think that the amendments that he made were absolutely crucial,” Cobbler said. “They don’t satisfy every concern of the conservation community but by and large these were the changes we asked for.”
The governor’s changes relax a number of the bill’s restrictions. Some of these changes include allowing the public to appeal a permit after the public comment period has closed if the permit or state law changes, restoring the current 30-day time period to file an appeal from the bill’s 15 days, and allowing the public, not just the permit applicant, to seek a hearing in district court instead of before the Montana Board of Environmental Review.
In its original language, the bill requires an appellate to post a bond as condition of appeal. Conservation groups had cried foul of this so-called “pay to play” requirement. While Gov. Schweitzer did not eliminate this provision, his amendments ensure that appeals based on law or fact will not require such a bond.
In part due to this last provision, the bill has been one of the most closely watched pieces of legislation on the environment or energy policy in this year’s legislature. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even took the unusual step of issuing a letter of concern that questioned if, under the bill, the State’s air and water quality permit system would meet federal requirements under the Clean Air and Water Acts.
The House and Senate now have to decide if they will accept the Governor’s proposed amendments—which the bill’s sponsor Rep. Jones supports—or try to muster the votes necessary to pass the bill in its original form over a possible veto.
The bill originally passed the House 68 – 32 on third reading and the Senate 30 – 20. A two-thirds majority of each chamber is needed to override a veto.