Multiple groups and concerned community members will descend on the Montana Public Service Commission today (Monday, Dec. 9) to voice their concern about NorthWestern Energy’s 2019 Resource Procurement Plan. (Rally at noon, followed by a public comment hearing at 1:30.)
This plan echoes the company’s long-standing refrain, “we can’t, we won’t, we don’t know how.” To be fair, I know nothing about the grid or how to run it. But, when I look around at the energy companies all across our nation, and most importantly, our neighbors in the West, I see companies saying, “we can, we will, we have the technology and we will push to develop what we don’t have.” This is leadership I can admire.
We need such leadership in all sectors responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, particularly energy. We need leadership from our elected officials to tell the truth about the climate crisis to our communities. We need leaders that account for this truth in all their decisions, like good airline pilots who use physics and chemistry every day to navigate our atmosphere, and deliver their passengers safely to their destination.
Many arguments will be made today about why the PSC Commissioners should not support the Procurement Plan–it’s likely that most will center on issues that are very important to Montanans and all Americans: jobs and economics, energy affordability and reliability. Certainly, Montana’s abundant sun, wind, water, and elevation position Montana to be a true leader in the renewable energy revolution. It’s happening in Idaho, and Colorado, and it can happen here, creating jobs and opportunities for Montanans, while preserving water, land, and air quality.
But the argument that I will make is that we need the truth of the climate crisis to be central in our decision-making as a state. Montana can’t solve the crisis alone, but we must do our part, and lead for change around the world, before our natural world fails, and with it, the natural systems that support life as we know it.
And those systems are failing, and normal patterns becoming extreme. Let’s focus on fire. Montana is warming more quickly than average as compared to what’s predicted nationally and globally. Warmer spring and summer temperatures are correlated with more intense fire seasons. (In the West, fire season now is more than 100 days longer than it was in the 1970s.) In 2017, Montanans experienced a vivid taste of our changing world with records set in parts of the state for dry and fire-prone conditions. By early fall most of our state was in a flash drought, with crops failing in the east, and fires raging in the west. $50 million in health and human services funds were used to pay our $62 million fire-fighting bill–hitting Montanans very hard on yet another front.
This year, hundreds of fires burned in the Arctic, creeping into areas that normally do not burn. Fire is normal in the North, but as Dr. Nancy Fresco wrote for PBS in August, “The evidence shows that overall, fires in the far North are becoming bigger, hotter and more frequent.”
In October, California suffered wildfires, and rolling blackouts (initiated by their energy company PG&E) meant to prevent fire with hundreds of thousands impacted for weeks. Some experts predict these rolling blackouts could continue for at least a decade. And, since October, large swaths of Australia have experienced unprecedented early spring fires, and now summer is on its way with higher than average temperatures predicted across the country. The massive bushfires have devastated koala populations in some areas, ravaging koala habitat, and further imperiling their future.
I see few elected officials in Montana telling the truth about the climate crisis to Montanans, or putting it front and center in a serious manner in decision-making. (Some are of course, like city officials in larger communities pushing for 100% clean electricity.)
The image below shows the change in annual average maximum temperature predictions for Montana, under two different emissions scenarios, through mid- and end-of-century. How are these predictions factoring into decision-making by state officials? How do they factor into the Public Service Commission’s duty to ensure “just and reasonable” rates as they consider NorthWestern’s plan to build more fossil fuel infrastructure?
By election time 2020, my hope is that every Montana family knows what the PSC is, what it does, and why it matters to them. The dysfunctional representatives who comprise our current Commission have thrived in obscurity for too long. If we don’t have sensible, informed public servants in these seats, we are in danger of missing critical opportunities to grow our economy, protect our state, and help ensure a livable future for us all.