Looking Ahead: River Protection in Montana 2021 & Beyond

The Upcoming Biden Presidency Offers An Opportunity to Increase Protections for Montana’s Rivers and the Businesses & Communities They Support, But, There Is No Guarantee

At the same time, Montana just elected an unprecedented number of state public officials – from Governor to Attorney General to legislative freshman in the house and senate – that are self-described anti-public lands, anti-environmental regulation, and pro-business leaders.

How do we navigate together?

During this time of political change, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper will stick to the values and strategies that have proven successful.  We will continue to take on the most dangerous threats, biggest polluters, and thorniest problems confronting Montana’s waterways.  We will challenge the bad and promote the good.  As we navigate together, we’re committed to:

  • Be relentless. Now is not the time to sit back and watch. It is time to double down on our efforts to ensure Montana and our federal officials use science-based decisionmaking in all actions that can affect our waterways.  We will ramp up our creative legal work and community organizing to seize the opportunity for real change.
  • Enforce the law. We will not back down from corporate law firms, lobbyists, and their cronies. Our staff attorney will sue illegal polluters and challenge dangerous industrial projects in court. We will use the law to level the playing field and spur public engagement.
  • Listen and reflect. Good advocates always believe they are right.  We must balance this tendency with humility and self-reflection as an organization.  We will pause, evaluate, and ask for feedback. Own our mistakes.  Listen.
  • Be inclusive. The work to protect clean water and our landscapes is directly tied to social justice.  We will listen to and partner with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities. We will use our privilege to promote justice.
  • Keep it local. We are 100% focused on local and regional Montana issues. We live here, raise our families here, and build long-term relationships here.  You do not have to worry about Waterkeeper shifting its priorities elsewhere.
  • Be grateful. What better job than to protect Montana’s environment and work with amazing people?  We will always be grateful to our members for your trust and donations as we put every dollar to work in defense of Montana’s spectacular waterways and the communities they support.

Top Federal Priorities in 2021

Executive orders (national priorities affecting Montana)

Rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. This is fast and easy via executive order. Once the USA becomes a party to the agreement, we must submit a target for greenhouse gas emissions. Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement is critical to limiting short-sighted state plans to invest public monies and resources into antiquated and polluting fossil fuel infrastructure.

Stop expedited approval of fossil fuel infrastructure. Trump Executive Order 13868 sought to expedite fossil fuel infrastructure like oil and gas pipelines and terminals. This led to the Dept. of Transportation passing a rule to approve LNG-by-rail and EPA passing a rule to limit state authority to deny fossil fuel projects under section 401 of the Clean Water Act. The Biden administration should revoke Trump’s executive order, direct the Dept. of Transportation to reconsider LNG-by-rail (hint: it’s dangerous), and direct EPA to reconsider its new rules on section 401. Montana connection: Oregon and Washington denied LNG and coal terminals using state authority under Clean Water Act section 401, while Montana’s outgoing Attorney General Tim Fox has wasted taxpayer time and money suing those coastal states in an attempt to breathe life into Montana’s dying coal industry.  We must protect states’ power to protect their citizens and local environment.

Agency regulations

Limit methane emissions from oil and gas. EPA should reinstate Obama-era rules or pass better rules to limit methane—a potent greenhouse gas—released in the production, processing, transmission, and storage of oil and gas. Montana connection: We continue to oppose fossil fuel infrastructure projects and new industrial development that would greatly increase methane emissions during fracking, shipping, and refining. New rules will make fracking less profitable and reduce the likelihood of more fracking operations coming to – and polluting – Montana.

Safeguard all streams and wetlands. The Trump EPA passed rules limiting the scope of the Clean Water Act to exclude some ephemeral and intermittent streams and wetlands from federal protection.  We are the only Montana-based conservation organization actively litigating these rule rollbacks in federal court.  The Biden EPA should reinstate the Obama-era “Waters of the United States” rule.  Montana connection: Ecologically valuable headwater streams and wetlands in Montana provide cool, clean flows and provide critical habitat sustaining our world-class fisheries. These waterways are connected to our namesake rivers downstream and deserve protection under the Clean Water Act.

Protect public lands. Biden’s Dept. of Interior should reinstate restrictions on oil and gas development in sage grouse habitat and in ecologically sensitive headwater regions. Trump’s Dept. of Interior reduced protections on nine million acres to allow oil and gas drilling and exponentially increased the leasing of federal mineral rights on public lands. Montana connection: Waterkeeper has successfully fought back two independent proposals under the Trump Administration to lease over 10,000 acres of federal public land in the Big Hole and Beaverhead for industrial oil & gas development.  We need to permanently remove the threat of oil and gas development from these special regions: the Golden Goose of Southwest Montana is our clean, healthy streams and trophy fisheries, not dinosaur oil.

Permit decisions

Historically, even during the Obama administration, most federal agencies rubber-stamped permits. This must change under the Biden administration.  Montana’s outdoors simply cannot afford death-by-a-thousand cuts and the indifference of bureaucrats. Montana connection: We have successfully defended the Missouri and its headwaters from unlawful rollbacks of nutrient pollution controls despite the indifference of EPA and best efforts of the oil & gas industry, municipal lobbyists, and a hostile legislature, by focusing our efforts on science-based decisionmaking under the Clean Water Act, an arena where we have stronger influence.  A responsible federal government, however, can support our science-based movement and encourage responsible state leaders who champion environmental protections for our precious waterways.

In addition to these regulatory actions, the Biden administration must also:

  • Invest in equity and environmental justice. While President-Elect Biden has pledged to make a “historic investment” in environmental justice, we must advocate that real money and real opportunities flow to our most impacted communities. Waterkeeper will focus our advocacy on meaningful support for Montana’s communities, both urban and rural.
  • Appoint environmental champions.  Trump filled his administration with oil and gas industry insiders committed to greasing the wheel for polluters.  The Biden administration should appoint a diverse, equity-focused team of environmental champions.  Waterkeeper will work with partners to recommend and advocate for these champions.
  • Ramp up enforcement. The Trump Administration’s Dept. of Justice gave most polluters a free pass.  This must stop.  Biden has pledged to establish a new Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Dept. of Justice.  If adequately funded, this change to focus on environmental justice, and holding polluters accountable, is positive.

We believe the Biden administration provides an opportunity for strong federal environmental policies that can directly – and positively – affect Montana, but this will require strategic asks and strong public pressure.  Together, we can seize the opportunity, while continuing to focus on the best ways to protect the landscapes and waterways of Montana’s Upper Missouri River Basin.

For a thorough list of President-Elect Biden’s environmental policy options, see the publication “Climate Reregulation in a Biden Administration”, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School.