Clean | Green | Sustainable

Montana’s growing eminent domain debacle

Posted by Matthew Koehler on August 31, 2011

[The following article was written by Paul Edwards, who owns a historic ranch on the Rocky Mountain Front, home of both the MATL transmission line and proposed wind farms. The article originally appeared in the summer 2011 newsletter of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.  Below the article is a link to the site of “Real Montanans for Fair Land Use.” They are currently gathering petitions to repeal HB 198.   –  MK]

“Eminent domain” is the legal tool used by corporations such as utilities, railroads, and energy companies to condemn and purchase private property they claim to need for their transmission lines, pipelines and railroads. The 2011 Montana Legislature, at the urging of Governor Brian Schweitzer, “clarified” the existing eminent domain law (HB 198) to favor energy corporations seeking to build transmission lines to export power out of state. But two seminal questions remain unanswered: Is there really a “need” for these lines on some of Montana’s most pristine landscapes; and are they truly in the public interest?

The issue arose because a Montana district judge denied a Canadian corporation the right to put its “Montana Alberta” transmission line, to export power to Canada, through private land dotted with tipi rings that have remained undisturbed for more than a century. The property is owned by members of the Little Shell tribe with direct blood ties to the Blackfeet who said they didn’t want to stop the line, but did want it moved away from the historic sites.

The new law will now allow the lines to be built wherever the Canadian or any other corporation wants to build them, tipi rings, historic sites, or any other reason notwithstanding. It will likewise allow NorthWestern Energy to proceed with its planned “MISTI” export power line to Idaho and points south that is now being contested in court by several Montana counties and hundreds of concerned citizens.

Those who argue for the law say that without massive transmission capacity to move the power out of state there will be no incentive to build industrial scale wind farms that will, theoretically, discourage new construction of highly-polluting coal-fired power plants.

But although “meeting the demand” has become the mantra in energy circles, there are other alternatives that make much more sense. Efficiency and conservation are vastly cheaper, faster and less costly than building new generation and landscape-defacing transmission towers and lines simply to provide all the electricity that can possibly be consumed. And since Montana already produces twice as much power as its residents consume, there is no market and hence, no need, for the excess energy in state.

Where public interest is concerned, there is no conceivable way to argue that Montanans will publicly benefit from construction of the export power facilities. An endless march of 150-foot (or larger) towers, their drooping wires and the clearcut access routes beneath them detract from, rather than add to, the public interest.

And finally, what guarantee is there that these lines will be used for transmitting wind power as proponents have claimed? Simply put, there are no guarantees. Given Governor Schweitzer’s continuing promotion of coal, combined with his efforts to develop the massive Otter Creek Coal Tracts, it is just as likely that these lines will be transmitting electricity from mine-mouth, coal-fired generation plants as windpower. A high-voltage transmission system is a conduit which is completely indifferent to the source from which its energy load originates.

The sad truth is that none of this scam has anything to do with public benefit in Montana or anywhere else: it’s about turning public resources into private profit. It’s the same as turning Montana into Asia’s coal cellar and siphoning Alberta’s Tar Sands oil into and across our state in Exxon’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Eminent domain was intended specifically and solely to be used to promote the public good. Energy corporations have never operated on that basis and never will. It’s too bad Governor Schweitzer and the 2011 Legislature didn’t grasp that basic truth.


Take Action: Repeal Corporate Eminent Domain to Protect Property Rights

During the past year citizens of Montana were left out of the loop on a crucial issue that threatens our basic rights, as well as our state’s heritage and future. Montana legislators, encouraged by gigantic corporate interests, grossly expanded eminent domain authority to allow private foreign and out-of-state corporations to condemn and confiscate private property for their own bottom line. Let us decide. It’s an issue that is too important for the backrooms and boardrooms.

Support IR-125 to give citizens a voice in overturning a bad law and restoring fundamental Montana values.


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Why We Fight: Paul Edwards discusses his tar sands, megaloads video

Posted by Matthew Koehler on August 25, 2011

(Note: This article was written by Paul Edwards. It originally appeared in the summer 2011 newsletter of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Paul’s new tar sands/megaloads video can be viewed here. – MK)

If John Muir were alive today he’d be a member of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Muir was no armchair environmentalist, he was a radical activist committed to demonstrable results on the land, not to collaboration and consensus. He maintained that the whole natural world was vitally connected and you couldn’t damage one essential element of it without damaging it all in ways unknown and unforeseen. He’d be with us.

So would Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s passionate connection to the wild world led him, through years of immersion in it and deep, discerning introspection, to the formulation of his watershed Land Ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” That’s the mantra we live by in this organization.

The Alliance is often accused by nature rapists, ecosystem despoilers, and their phony sob sisters of being an uncompromising “obstructionist” organization. What drives them nuts is that we relentlessly attack and beat proposals that are flagrantly criminal — and so much of what is being done or attempted now in various ways by the Corporate Tyranny that owns America is simply criminal.

One good example is the Alberta Tar Sands obscenity. This incalculably destructive eco-crime has the full backing of both the Canadian and American governments, but organized opposition to it is growing every day.

Meanwhile, Exxon–a major Tar Sands player and extortionist pirate–has cut a deal with Montana’s Coalboy Governor and his Idaho counterpart, Oily Butch Otter, to run monstrous megaloads from the port of Lewistown on narrow Highway 12 along the federally-designated Wild and Scenic Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers. From there the route twists over serpentine Lolo Pass, goes down through Missoula and follows the Blackfoot River to the Rocky Mountain Front then up to the Alberta Tar Sands.

There are administrative challenges and lawsuits under way against the scam in both Idaho and Montana, but there’s no telling how they’ll play out. So, knowing I had a shot at a known enemy, I decided to try to hit Exxon where they live by doing a video to expose them in all their appalling arrogance.

The fight against the massive and continuing destruction of the Tar Sands is as David and Goliath as it gets. But as John Muir would have said, it is directly related and “connected” to the essential mission of the Alliance: We fight the arrogant and irresponsible exercise of concentrated money and power that exploits and abuses the natural world and the people who inhabit it.

Vital ecosystem connections are the essence of the Tar Sands fight and are part and parcel of what the Alliance has been doing with issues like the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act for decades. We fight the tough fights against very long odds…and we win most of the time.

For exactly that reason, members Muir and Leopold would be proud of us.

Paul Edwards was born in South Dakota and has worked as a pea-pitcher, header puncher, roustabout, wild animal trainer’s assistant, high-steel man, able seaman, movie actor and NGO rep in I Corps, Vietnam. Paul also put in 25 years as a writer, director and producer in Hollywood film and television (including the hit TV series Gunsmoke) before fleeing for his life and what remained of his sanity to his ranch on the Rocky Mountain Front at the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

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Big Wildlife’s Action and News for August

Posted by Matthew Koehler on August 24, 2011

If you’re interested in helping to protect keystone carnivores in the Western United States, check out the latest action alert from Big Wildlife, a project of the Earth Island Institute. You can take action to help end trapping on America’s National Wildlife Refuges, speak out for wolves in the southwest and Pacific northwest and even “like” Big Wildlife on Facebook.

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Updates from White House sit-in to stop Tar Sands Keystone XL Pipeline

Posted by Matthew Koehler on August 22, 2011

A few weeks ago environmental leaders – including Maude Barlow, Wendell Berry, Tom Goldtooth, James Hansen, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben and David Suzuki – called for civil disobedience at the White House to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada’s tar sands, through Montana and the Great Plains, and then down to refineries in Texas.

According to Tar Sands Action:

Another 52 Americans were arrested at the White House this morning (August 22, 2011) for taking part in an ongoing sit-in to push President Obama to stand up to Big Oil and deny the permit for a massive new oil pipeline. In total, 162 people have been arrested since the ongoing protest began on Saturday.

This morning’s demonstrators came to Washington, DC from across the country, willing to spend their vacation in handcuffs to send a message to the President that they feel has abandoned their values and his promises to take on climate change.

Lori Fischer, the co-director for Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition and a member of Nebraska Farmers Union, traveled with five other Nebraskans and was arrested this morning. She said before her arrest:

“If the government is going to refuse to step up to the responsibility to defend a livable future, I believe that creates a moral imperative for me and many others. This is a crucial issue for Nebraskans to speak up loudly about. Our land, water, and the future of our children are at stake. I feel our leaders need to take seriously their responsibility to pass on a healthy and just world to the next generation, I am going to Washington remind them.”

Make sure to check out Tar Sands Action’s webpage for lots more general information and video, photos and updates on the continuing protest at the White House.

Another good source of information is the DC Indy Media site. Worth a look is a video Climate Wars, Episode 1:The Tar Sands. The site also links to Anonymous – Operation Green Rights – Tarmageddon Phase Two.

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U.S. House rejects “Extinction Rider”

Posted by Matthew Koehler on July 28, 2011

Yesterday, on a vote of 224-202 the U.S House of Representatives rejected the “extinction rider,” which would have prohibited species listings and habitat conservation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Specifically, this bill would have defunded the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s ESA program, preventing the agency from listing species as threatened or endangered or designating critical habitat under the ESA. Defeating the “extinction rider” is great news for America’s most vulnerable species and their habitat.

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Activists protest tar sands, Keystone Pipeline and megaloads at MT Capital

Posted by Matthew Koehler on July 12, 2011

According to the Great Falls Tribune:

“More than 100 environmental activists from across the country descended on Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office Tuesday to demand that he rescind his support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the Exxon Mobile megaload transportation project.

Schweitzer met with the rowdy group of activists in the reception room of his office, but refused to meet their demands. Activists from Northen Rockies Rising Tide, Earth!First and other environmental groups said last week’s rupture of an Exxon Mobile pipeline that fouled dozens of miles of the Yellowstone River downstream of Laurel is a prime example of why Schweitzer should “toss big oil out of Montana.”

Great Falls Tribune reporter John S. Adams is on scene and, according to his Montana Lowdown blog, will “have more on this as the day goes on, including photos and video from today’s protest in Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office.”

On Monday, Adams took a deeper look into the issue with his post, “Schweitzer still supports oil sands/Keystone XL despite tough talk on Yellowstone oil spill.”

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Media ignores real story with Rehberg’s EAJA crusade

Posted by Matthew Koehler on June 27, 2011

I just got done reading the Missoulian’s article “Environmental Lawsuits: Bill would limit payouts when government loses cases.”

Basically, in the article, the Missoulian helps Rep Denny Rehberg make the supposed case that the Equal Access to Justice Act needs to be reformed because us whacky environmentalists sometimes get some attorney fees covered when we successfully sue the federal government and the government loses.

As the Missoulian wrote, “The Equal Access to Justice Act says any government agency that loses a lawsuit to a private individual, group or business must pay the legal costs of the winner. The money comes out of each agency’s budget, rather than a central fund.”

“[EAJA’s] morphed into something entirely different that wasn’t intended. It’s become a cottage industry for lawsuits, especially in the environmental arena,” explained Rep Rehberg in the article.

Yet, buried in the story (and certainly not reflected in the Missoulian’s headline) is the fact that “just 1 percent of Equal Access cases made awards for environmental lawsuits, and those were split between conservation and industry groups.

“The real question is why does the government keep losing? Instead of getting rid of (EAJA), Congressman Rehberg should provide oversight of federal agencies to find out why they have such a hard time following the law” explained Michael Garrity of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

So, just what type of cases make up the bulk of actual Equal Access to Justice Act cases? Well, the Missoulian really never tells us this, because apparently they want to keep the focus on the 1% of EAJA cases involving environmental groups.

However, the article does point out, “Other applicants for Equal Access to Justice money include businesses challenging federal agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and military veterans fighting the Veterans Administration or Department of Defense.”

And anyone with access to Google can find out just how important the Equal Access to Justice Act really is, not only to small businesses and military veterans, but also to Social Security claimants, especially the poor, disabled and disadvantaged.

From Disabled World:

Social Security Disability claimants may have to prepare themselves for another potentially crippling blow, and law firms that represent these claimants, such as Disability Group Inc., may suffer the same fate….The EAJA allows people to apply for awards of attorney fees and other expenses associated with pursuing litigation against the government. EAJA applicants who win their cases against the government and who are eligible may receive their payments after the case closes. This is a vitally important piece of legislation that helps guarantee that citizens of any socio-economic stratum can address legitimate grievances against the government….Any prohibition of EAJA fee award payments will undoubtedly make it difficult, if not impossible, for many Social Security claimants, as well as veterans, to find lawyers to represent them in federal court. This possibility weighs heavily on local and national Social Security Disability law firms across the country. “In my opinion,” writes attorney Douglas Brigandi of Bayside, New York, “it would be a travesty to allow this legislature to go forward and thereby deprive those individuals, who depend on the Social Security Act, the right to obtain these much needed entitlements.”

Perhaps the Missoulian can do another article on this aspect of the EAJA, especially since these cases constitute the vast, vast majority of EAJA cases and one would assume there would be plenty of veterans or small business owners or Social Security claimants in Montana who have benefited from EAJA.

It’s a shame that this EAJA debate with Rep Rehberg and Rep Lummis (R-WY) has been boiled down to the 1% of EAJA cases that are environmental in nature, while Rep Rehberg and Lummis apparently ignore what EAJA does to help level the playing field when the poor and disabled or military veterans and small businesses must hold the federal government accountable through court action.

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HuffPost: Senators Back Delay In Crackdown On Fees That Yield Billions For Banks

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 16, 2011

As reported by Zack Carter of the Huffington Post:

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, a group of nine senators led by Montana Democrat Jon Tester put their names behind legislation to delay the Federal Reserve’s upcoming crackdown on the “swipe fees” that banks charge merchants for processing debit card transactions — a huge moneymaker for the banking industry whose continuation is at the top of the industry’s lobbying wishlist.

Retailers complain that the costs of high swipe fees, also known as “interchange” fees, hurt their business and are ultimately passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices. A provision in last year’s financial-regulatory overhaul requires the Fed to limit such fees, and in December, the central bank proposed a rule that would cap the levies at 12 cents per transaction, a nearly 73 percent drop from the current average of 44 cents per transaction.

Merchants and financial reform advocates celebrated the move, but the banks are obviously loath to give up such a big piece of any revenue stream, let alone the swipe fees that industry analysts at The Nilson Report estimate yield $1.35 billion every month, or $16.2 billion per year. (Half of that total, according to Nilson, goes to just 10 banks.)

Tester’s bill, the Debit Interchange Fee Study Act, would postpone the regulation for two years’ worth of further evaluation — and chances for the bank lobby to erase it entirely….And while Tester and Corker were issuing their statements, the American Bankers Association was holding a meeting on lobbying at the D.C. Marriott Renaissance Hotel in Chinatown. At the meeting, which HuffPost attended, the banking group’s COO, Michael Hunter, coached a packed ballroom of community bankers on ways to convince key lawmakers and staffers to support the bill. The Senate bill and its House companion, Hunter said, were the ABA’s top legislative priorities for the coming year.

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Mad Men Pitch High Speed Rail for U.S. PIRG

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 9, 2011

From U.S. PIRG:

WASHINGTON, Mar. 9 –Two lead actors from the hit television show Mad Men throw their support behind high-speed rail in a humorous new online video. The actors and U.S. PIRG, a national advocacy organization, developed the video as a way to reach new audiences and build excitement for high-speed rail projects around the country.

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Sen Tester attaches wolf rider to Senate’s $1 trillion Continuing Resolution

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 5, 2011

According to the Missoulian:

“U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has inserted language into the Senate’s Continuing Resolution – the bill that funds the entire national budget – declaring the gray wolf a recovered species in Montana and Idaho

The $1.077 trillion, seven-month spending bill is expected to reach a full Senate vote on Tuesday, and then return to the House of Representatives.”

In response, Defenders of Wildlife released the following press release:

Senate includes wolf delisting bill in must-pass funding pack age:
Provision would strip ESA protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana

Washington, D.C. (March 4, 2011) – In the latest effort to strip federal endangered species protections from gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, a Continuing Budget Resolution to fund federal government operations for the remainder of the fiscal year was unveiled in the Senate today. The provision directs the Secretary of the Interior to reissue the 2009 delisting rule, which was struck down in 2010 by a federal district court, and would insulate the reissued rule from further judicial review. If enacted, wolf management authority would be returned to all states in the region other than Wyoming. Idaho and Montana have made clear that wolf numbers will be drastically reduced in those states, and Wyoming has thus far refused to produce a wolf management plan that passes muster under the Endangered Species Act.

The following is a statement by Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife:

“What do wolves have to do with critical funding for our federal government? Absolutely nothing. Congress should be focused on keeping our nation’s essential services up and running, not going back on America’s commitment to restore wolves to Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies.

“This provision would hand over responsibility for wolves to the states when their approach of late has been anything but responsible. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has repeatedly stated his intent to kill as many wolves as possible in Idaho, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer recently encouraged ranchers to take the law into their own hands and kill wolves on sight. We should not be rewarding these states for thumbing their noses at the conservation of wolves, wildlife that belongs to all Americans.

“This provision sets a dangerous precedent for legislating on Endangered Species Act protections that could leave countless other species vulnerable to attack. And, by blocking any further judicial review of wolf delisting, this provision sends the message that complying with the law doesn’t matter. If Congress adopts this measure, it will be a tragedy not just for wolves and other endangered species, but for the rule of law in America.

“Congress’s last-ditch attempt to force wolf delisting through on a budget bill only opens the door to other riders that eat away at the foundation of our nation’s environmental safeguards.”

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