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Montana utility regulators drop plan to hire constitutional consultant

June 17, 2014 4:03 pm  • 

HELENA — Montana utility regulators dropped a proposal Tuesday to spend $3,000 to hire a former University of Montana law professor known for his conservative views to point out any constitutional problems with proposed federal regulations to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.

Public Service Commission member Roger Koopman said he believes the proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations are an overreach of federal power, but he doesn't specifically know how.

Robert Natelson, who specializes in constitutional law at a Colorado-based think tank, would help educate commissioners as the commission considers responding to the EPA plan, Koopman said.

"Ultimately, we are not required as public servants and as commissioners to enforce unconstitutional law. I feel that very strongly, and I think that's the kind of thing that will be an interesting question for Professor Natelson to address," Koopman said.

Natelson, now a senior fellow at the Independence Institute, ran twice for Montana governor as a Republican, was active in conservative politics and won a grievance filed against the University of Montana to teach constitutional law there.

Koopman withdrew the proposal when he saw it wasn't going to be approved. Two other commissioners said constitutional questions are best left for the attorney general, while Chairman Bill Gallagher said he was "conflicted" over the idea to hire Natelson.

"No doubt the EPA is going to have an influence and an effect. But we deal with it on a secondary or tertiary level, where a company that has a coal-generated plant is certainly going to be subject to these regulations. It manifests itself here either in higher rates or a request for a shutdown," Gallagher said.

The EPA would leave it up to each state to tailor the rules to meet the goal of reducing carbon dioxide levels 30 percent nationwide by 2030. Montana emissions would have to be cut 21 percent.

Environmentalists hailed the measure as a good first step in addressing climate change.

"These are appropriate, modest first steps to a clear policy of decreasing carbon emissions," University of Montana professor Steve Running said after the proposal was released earlier this month.

John Barnes, spokesman for Attorney General Tim Fox, said the regulations could affect Montana's legal interests, along with jobs and electricity costs.

"We are looking closely at the regulations and considering all available options for defending the interests of Montanans," Barnes said in a statement.