Montana Gov. Steve Bullock Faces An Uphill Battle With Climate Hawks

The 2020 Democratic hopeful says he’s serious about fighting climate change. Progressives worry he’d take a “middle ground” approach.

Steve Bullock, the two-term Democratic governor of Montana, was among the chorus of voices denouncing Trump’s June 2017 decision to pull the U.S. out of the historic Paris climate agreement, calling the move “shortsighted and dangerous.”

Two years later, the mainstream Democrat from deep-red Montana is pitching himself as the person to take down Trump in 2020 and restore the United States as a leader in the climate fight.

The 53-year-old Montana native announced his bid for president last week, joining an already giant field of Democrats. On his campaign website, he writes that “as Big Oil reaps huge profits and takes over our public lands, our politicians stand by and do literally nothing to deal with the climate crisis.”

But Bullock’s tenure as governor has been mixed. It includes protecting the state’s coal industry and railing against Obama administration greenhouse gas limits and a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands. He supported the development of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and blasted President Barack Obama for his decision to block the project in 2015. He voiced “deep concern” about the Obama administration’s proposed hydraulic fracturing regulation in 2013, aimed at better protecting water resources.

Bullock has also said fossil fuels will remain part of the nation’s energy portfolio for decades to come and dismissed the idea that the nation can wean itself off dirty fuels within the timeframe some are calling for.

“I think coal, for the foreseeable future, is going to have a place in our country,” he told reporters the day he announced his candidacy.

It’s a record that doesn’t sit well with progressives who are looking to the Democratic primary candidates to set out clear priorities for climate policy.

It’s 2019 and scientists say we have just 11 years to transform our economy and society to preserve human civilization as we know it,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate advocacy group that has spearheaded the push for a Green New Deal.

“Talking about deregulating fracking, opening federal lands to coal mining, and parroting industry lies about ‘clean coal’ is unacceptable. Those kinds of policies are a death sentence for our generation.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock after signing several bills into law earlier this month in Helena.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock after signing several bills into law earlier this month in Helena.
Ilana Panich-Linsman for HuffPost

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading United Nations body of researchers studying anthropogenic warming, warned in a sobering report last October that governments must slash global emissions nearly in half by 2030, and reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, to keep temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, the ambitious target of the historic 2015 Paris accord.

The findings thrust the climate crisis into the national spotlight. In February, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the Green New Deal resolution, which called for a nationwide mobilization to decarbonize the U.S. economy over the next decade. It has become a litmus test for Democrats vying to topple the Trump administration, which has repeatedly dismissed and downplayed the threat of climate change.

As a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls are embracing the ambitious Green New Deal framework — a few have rolled out comprehensive climate and green jobs plans — Bullock has joined more moderate candidates in calling for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris pact and invest in technologies to capture carbon emissions, but hasn’t gone much further than that. He has called the Green New Deal “aspirational” and said he’s looking to prioritize tangible solutions.

In a wide-ranging interview with HuffPost days before he announced his bid for president, Bullock addressed a 2016 reelection advertisement in which his campaign touted that he challenged the Obama administration’s coal regulations. “As governor, he listened to us and stood up to President Obama to defend our coal jobs,” a longtime Montana coal worker says in the ad.

“We’ve got to recognize that you’re going to be making steps. You’re not going to flip a switch overnight” on fossil fuels, Bullock told HuffPost. “I wanted to make sure that the Obama administration understood that.”

The Clean Power Plan, the controversial Obama-era policy to cut emissions from power plants, would have “moved the goalposts” for Montana ― one of the largest coal-producing states in the nation ― by requiring it to double its emissions reduction target, Bullock says. Although he was disappointed with the final proposal, he worked toward finding ways for the state to implement the stringent emissions targets, according to a spokeswoman.

Early in his first term, Bullock endorsed the development of the Keystone XL pipeline, saying it would “advance our domestic energy security.” And he decried the Obama administration’s 2013 proposed rules for hydraulic fracturing as “redundant,” arguing that states should retain regulatory authority over such activities on federal lands. The Washington Post has described Bullock as “ardently pro-fracking.”

RL Miller, president of the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote, told HuffPost she “genuinely can’t see any daylight between” Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has positioned himself as a moderate with a more cautious approach to phasing out fossil fuels.

“Same reliance on fossil fuels,” Miller said of the two 2020 contenders.

This 2010 file photo shows the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, Montana.
This 2010 file photo shows the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, Montana.

Like most Democrats who have joined the race, Bullock has not released a detailed climate plan. But his campaign told HuffPost this week that the governor’s approach to tackling the crisis would include increasing energy efficiency in homes, businesses and infrastructure; rejoining the Paris accord and reversing Trump’s cuts to fuel efficiency standards; funding research to advance carbon capture technologies and restoring wetlands and forests; aggressively expanding renewable energy; and fighting the flood of industry “dark money” in politics.

“Our future requires us to be aggressive and we need to use every tool in the toolbox — and develop new ones,” Bullock said via email this week.

Asked why he is not a member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group of 24 governors who have vowed to uphold the goals of the Paris pact, Bullock said he has directed state agencies with meeting the targets of the global agreement. And he noted that Montana has doubled its wind generation and quadrupled its solar energy during his six years in office.

“That’s the kind of progress we should see on a national level,” he said.

O’Hanlon said the Sunrise Movement worries Bullock will advocate for a “middle ground” climate strategy on par with the one Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is reportedly crafting. The foundation of the former vice president’s plan is rejoining the Paris accord and reinstating Obama-era regulations on vehicle emissions and power plants, as Reuters reported.

A number of rival Democratic candidates — including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who recently announced a $9 trillion plan to slash emissions and create green jobs — joined scientists in rejecting Biden’s looming policy as unacceptable and wildly out of step with the science.

Inslee has also sparred with Bullock on this issue. In 2016, lawmakers in Washington state passed a bill that outlined a financial path for Puget Sound Energy, Washington’s largest utility, to eventually decommission and clean up two aging units at the Colstrip coal-fired power plant in eastern Montana. Puget Sounds Energy co-owns the two units with Talen Energy.

Bullock urged Inslee to veto the bill, citing the impact it would have on his state, as The Seattle Times reported. Inslee ultimately signed the bill into law, calling it “an important step towards ending Washington’s reliance on coal-fired electricity and transitioning to cleaner energy sources.”

Bullock told HuffPost it’s important that fossil fuel communities like Colstrip aren’t forgotten in the quest for a more sustainable future.

Let’s be clear: The science unequivocally shows we need to significantly reduce emissions to avoid the irreversible impacts of climate change,” he said. “As we speed the transition to carbon-neutral energy, we must support the communities at the center of that transition with significant investments in new employment and workforce opportunities.”

Kevin Robillard contributed to this report.

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