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District court judge's order clarifies zoning dispute over NorthWestern Energy natural gas plant

The under-construction plant in Laurel
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
The plant by Laurel last year.

The construction of a controversial natural gas plant in Laurel can go on as planned, after a Billings judge sided with Northwestern Energy in an ongoing legal dispute between residents, environmental groups and the utility giant.

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Jessica Fehr on Monday denied a motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit against a natural gas plant NorthWestern is building by Laurel.

A group of Laurel residents together with advocacy groups the Montana Environmental Information Center and Northern Plains Resource Council filed the lawsuit in 2022. They allege that the property is under city jurisdiction and incorrectly zoned for the plant. They requested a legal determination that the city has control - which the judge’s order this week effectively denies.

The judge found the city does not have authority and references Yellowstone County’s intention of exercising jurisdictional control over the parcel.

Residents attached to the lawsuit say the plant poses threats to community health, property values and aesthetics among other things, and advocacy groups warn against the damaging effects of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

NorthWestern Energy argues the plant is a necessary addition so that the utility can produce more power itself rather than buy it on the open market during times of high demand.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.