Former state legislator Russ Doty brought his push for renewable energy to Billings on Wednesday, part of his campaign to get Initiative 184 on the ballot this year.
Addressing about 15 people at a Democrats’ breakfast study group at the McCormick Cafe, 2419 Montana Ave., Doty gave a brief introduction to an initiative aimed at doing many things.
The primary goal of I-184 is to require Montana’s investor-owned utilities to gradually increase their use of renewable energy from the current level of 15 percent to 80 percent by 2050.
But the initiative would also provide retraining with full unemployment benefits for up to two years for displaced fossil-fuel workers employed by coal mines, power plants and railroads. It would also levy a small electricity-production tax to replace lost coal severance tax revenues, to protect local governments and Indian tribes that depend on the money.
Doty was introduced at the breakfast meeting by former state Sen. Tom Towe, considered the father of the state’s coal severance tax, which was originally set at 30 percent of the value of coal produced and later reduced to 15 percent.
Referring to the 24-page initiative he is trying to qualify for the General Election ballot in the fall, Doty said it is complicated because it is important. By the same token, he said, Towe pushed to establish the coal severance tax “not because it was easy but because it was hard.”
Doty is a native of Great Falls who served one term in the state House in the late 1960s. He has a master’s degree in economics, later earned a law degree and worked as an administrative law judge. Now living in Greeley, Colo., he said he drives an electric car but couldn’t drive it to Billings because there are no recharging stations between here and Casper, Wyoming.
He founded MTcares — for Montana Community Affordable Renewable Energy Saves — to push for I-184. The initiative is an updated and overhauled version of I-180, which Doty and supporters failed to qualify for the ballot in 2016.
That initiative received only 34 percent of the signatures needed to qualify, Doty said, but supporters had only four months to gather signatures. This time around, the Rev. Ken Crouch, a former member of the Billings City Council, submitted the initiative to the Montana secretary of state last fall, and it was authorized for signature gathering on Oct. 31.
To appear on the ballot, the initiative needs 25,468 signatures, including the signatures of at least 5 percent of the people who voted in the most recent election in 34 of the state’s 100 legislative districts.
Doty pitched the initiative Wednesday as a response to the dire threat of climate change and a common-sense measure to make sure Montana remains competitive as an exporter of energy.
The writing is already on the wall, he said. An electric utility in Iowa that is owned by Warren Buffett has made a commitment to generate 95 percent of its electricity with renewable energy by 2020, Doty said. And the credit card company Visa has pledged to use 100 percent renewable electricity in its operations around the world by 2020, Doty said.
And as more and more states enact energy standards with high renewables targets, he said, it might be impossible to sell electricity generated in Montana to those states.
Ming Cabrera, who is running for the state House in District 44 in the Heights, asked about the impacts on workers in places like Colstrip, and the effect on tax revenues flowing to the state of Montana if coal mining disappears.
“Things are going to get worse for them pretty much regardless of what we do,” Doty said, because of changes in technology and patterns of energy use. Towe pointed out that coal is going to remain an important part of the energy mix for many decades. Even if Montana were to meet the goal of 80 percent renewables by 2050, he said, that would mean 20 percent of the state’s energy could still be produced by burning coal.
Doty also said concerns about jobs in the fossil fuel industry have to be balanced by concerns for what climate change is doing to other sectors of the Montana economy.
According to a fact sheet he passed out, the Montana Farmers Union “forecasts Montana will lose 24,600 jobs by 2050 if we keep frying the planet,” with half those jobs in farming and half in ranching. The fact sheet said another study predicts the loss of 11,000 jobs reliant on tourism, sport fishing and skiing.
To pay for training and benefits for displaced workers, I-184 calls for a tax on electricity production that would cost the average user — average being about 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year — $2.40 a year.
To replace coal severance tax and royalty revenues, the initiative would also levy an additional tax that would cost the average user 26 cents a year to start with, rising to $6.36 a year by 2050, when the 80 percent renewable target is met.
Paul Van Tricht suggested that Doty “might be going down a dead-end” by using the initiative process, because it would only have the effect of introducing a bill that could be completely changed by a Republican-dominated Legislature that “will not do anything that is hostile to coal, period.”
Doty acknowledged that that will be a challenge, but he said even the most callous legislators have to heed the wishes of their constituents at some point. And views on climate change and renewable energy are changing rapidly, he said, pointing out that a an initiative similar to I-184 failed in Michigan in 2012.
But the state of Michigan subsequently adopted an energy portfolio aiming at 35 percent renewables by 2025, and the state’s largest utility pledged to stop using coal by 2040.