Sometimes, It’s Nice To Be Excluded: MEPA Reform In The 2023 Session
"Thanks to Governor Gianforte’s Red Tape Relief Initiative, the Legislature appears to be striking a better balance between preserving Montana’s innate beauty and ensuring all Montanans can thrive."
Last October, the Frontier Institute published its vision of Montana’s energy future. In that study, we highlighted that environmental permitting reform at the federal and state levels will be key to providing cheap and abundant energy to Montanans. However, energy projects are not the only projects that require environmental permitting review. A wide range of projects such as building new roads, repairing pre-existing infrastructure or adding new fencing, often languish through the lengthy environmental review process, wasting time and resources while slowing economic development – but legislators are finally working to fix this.
The Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) is Montana’s version of the federal government’s National Environmental Policy Act. MEPA is a procedural law that requires state agencies to assess the impact of a proposed project by the government or when it is on state land. These projects range from improving roads to forest management projects. The time and paperwork a project will have to go through depends on the potential impact the project would have on the environment.
A project that may cause significant environmental impact requires a very stringent Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). An Environmental Assessment (EA) is for projects where the potential impact is uncertain. A project with no significant impact is provided the shortest environmental review, referred to as a categorical exclusion. Projects that fall under EAs and EIS’ require more hoops to jump through, adding months to the review process. Even after the initial review process, the project still must go through public notice and hearings before breaking ground.
Thankfully two bills have been introduced as part of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Red Tape Relief Initiative in the Montana Legislature to address MEPA: HB 85 and HB 34. These bills seek to expand what qualifies as a “categorical exclusion” for needed improvements to Montana’s lands and towns. Sponsored by Representative Marty Malone, HB 85 expands categorical exclusions for improvement projects on agriculture and grazing land leased from the state trust. These low impact projects include maintenance on pre-existing infrastructure, fencing, water developments like stock water tanks and routine herbicide treatments. According to Agriculture and Grazing Bureau Chief Kelly Motichka, passing HB 85 would eliminate 150 EAs annually. This would reduce around 1,500 hours in staff time and $41,000 in agency costs. Removing this needless red tape is the best of both worlds – not only does it remove barriers against farmers and ranchers from improving their land, but it also reduces the size of the government.
The second bill, HB 34, sponsored by Representative Steve Gist, will ensure projects part of the Department of Natural Resource & Conservation’s (DNRC) grant program are categorically excluded. Counties and municipalities routinely use these grant programs for a range of projects, including managing renewable resources, irrigation development and emergency dam repairs. Over the last two years, the state and federal money appropriated to these grant programs has increased from tens of millions to hundreds of millions – yet these projects are often held up by lengthy MEPA analysis.
During the hearing for this bill, DNRC Bureau Chief Autumn Coleman explained that the application process for the grants are so thorough that any included EA analysis would be duplicative and therefore redundant. Yet the DNRC has to assign staff to coordinate grant applications with MEPA requirements. Beyond the waste of staff resources, the EA process cannot substantively do anything to change the grant application. It is an entirely pointless and time-consuming box to check. HB 34 will allow DNRC staff to use taxpayer money more productively.
The spirit behind the MEPA is laudable, Montanans have a right to a clean and healthful environment. But burying Montanans under the pointless red tape for projects that repeatedly show no significant environmental impact is not the answer. Thanks to Governor Gianforte’s Red Tape Relief Initiative, the Legislature appears to be striking a better balance between preserving Montana’s innate beauty and ensuring all Montanans can thrive.