As wildfires blot out the sun and the scorching weather forecast stretches from days to weeks to perhaps a month-long heat wave, Governor Gianforte called for “unleashing American innovation” to address climate change.
That was a politically savvy statement. Climate science is still controversial in some parts of Montana, and who doesn’t love innovation?
But is Montana innovating? What sorts of energy-saving, pollution-reducing ideas are being pursued by the Governor, the Legislature, or NorthWestern Energy?
The results are discouraging. Looking at jobs in innovative wind energy, Montana ranks 48th out of the 50 states in wind jobs, with only 86 jobs, according to the 2020 Energy Employment Report. North Dakota has less wind than we do and they have over 20 times the jobs. And for every Montana job in wind energy, South Dakota created 17 wind jobs.
North and South Dakota manufacture wind turbine components, assuring steady employment as wind energy grows by leaps and bounds across the U.S. and the world. How many turbine-manufacturing jobs does Montana have? Zero.
Solar energy tells the same story: Montana ranks 47th in solar jobs.
We could easily improve those numbers if our state leadership embraced innovation. But do they? A barrage of bills in the last legislative session sought to punish homes and businesses that have adopted solar energy, charge higher registration fees for electric cars, and eliminate incentives for homes and businesses to install energy efficiency measures.
While our leadership ignores modern energy, they’ve been propping up the most polluting power plant in the state. While almost every utility in the country is working to make its fleet of power plants less polluting, NorthWestern Energy avidly lobbied our legislators to make Montana’s energy grid dirtier by trying to give our most polluting energy source — coal — a larger share of our energy pie.
In Gov. Gianforte’s statement last week, he decried “overbearing government mandates” to reduce the pollution that causes climate change. Again, it’s a believable quote, until you look at the track record.
Montana took such a Big Government approach to energy that it passed two laws to interfere in a standing contract between the six companies that collaboratively operate Colstrip. One of these laws (SB 266) puts the Montana government in the middle of maintenance and operational decisions, which is the very definition of overbearing government.
These laws are not only unconstitutional, they’re anti-business, and ultimately anti-Montana. As Gov. Gianforte signed the laws, he publicly mocked the energy companies in Washington and Oregon that own most of Colstrip, because they’re striving to make their energy grids less polluting.
In response, the VP of Energy Supply at Puget Sound Energy said that government interference into a private contract is “frightening,” and it makes the company less willing to invest in Montana. This scuffle shows how Montana’s overbearing government is stifling innovation.
So, Montana is left behind while each of our neighbors forges forward. We have few new jobs, we’ve alienated our business partners, and we’re increasing our reliance on dirty fuels instead of moving to cheaper, cleaner sources of energy that offer high-wage jobs and a growing market.
Sadly for all of us, Gianforte’s actions show no interest in innovation, and instead he’s wielding the brute force of government to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile oil, gas, and coal interests have given $513,000 to Gianforte’s campaigns, so maybe that’s why he remains blind to the rapidly changing energy industry. While the Governor may be doing a fine job of representing corporate interests, he’s made no efforts to keep Montana relevant in the energy industry.
Karin Kirk is a geologist, science journalist, and ski instructor from Bozeman.