Last July, the operators of the Colstrip coal-fired power plant settled a lawsuit with environmental groups, agreeing to shut down the plants two older electricity generators by 2022.
As the community of Colstrip tries to figure out an uncertain future, their Republican Senator Duane Ankney is proposing legislation aiming to provide some security for his town.
In a Senate hearing Monday, Ankney introduced a bill that would put greater regulations and guidelines on the out of state companies that plan to shut down parts of the power plant.
Ankney told lawmakers his bill [SB-37] would provide clearer expectations for companies planning to leave Colstrip.
"It looks to me like if there was defined guidelines in taking that plant down, it would keep them out of court, it would make decommissioning and dismantling of that site much easier, if they knew exactly what they had to do," Ankney said.
Ankney’s bill came out of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who talked over possible future scenarios last year.
He says the legislation isn’t supposed to penalize the companies that leave Colstrip. He says he just didn’t see enough detailed requirements in current law for when a big power plant, like Colstrip, is scheduled to go off line.
"Those sites, there just a lot to them," Ankney said.
Aimee Reynolds testified in support of the bill on the behalf Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
"This bill would ensure that closure and any other closures that follow would be conducted responsibly, "Reynolds said. "While the current owners of the Colstrip plant have been really good to work with, we know that plant ownership could change in the future. And, I remember a different kind of plant in Northwest Montana that was demolished improperly, leaving hazardous substances strewed down the mountain. This bill would prevent that from happening."
Reynolds was referring to the WR Grace asbestos facility in Libby.
She says Ankney's bill would require a remediation plan that the DEQ would review and approve, including a public comment period.
But, others say some of the details in Ankney's decommissioning plan are already required under Montana law. And in some cases, opponents say, it conflicts with existing law.
Steve Brown, an attorney representing Seattle-based Puget Sound Energy, testified against the bill. Puget owns 50 percent of Colstrip Units 1 and 2.
"There's a very comprehensive process in place under existing law, and we don’t believe that adding another statute to a process that is already in place, and is working very well, is necessary," Brown said.
But Brown said Puget Sound Energy would be open to discussing amendments to the bill.
The Montana Environmental Information Center also testified that the bill conflicts with existing laws. MEIC was one of the groups that filed suit over Colstrip Units 1 and 2, which resulted in the settlement requiring them to shut down in 2022.
Talen Energy, which owns the other 50 percent of Colstrip Units 1 and 2 also told lawmakers the bill isn’t necessary.
Jon Metropolis representing Talen told Senator Ankney that he respectfully opposes the bill.
"Talen’s opposition is primarily this: it’s not a solution," Metropolis said.
Metropolis told lawmakers that the problem before them is the timeline of when Colstrip will shut down.
"Colstrip units 1 and 2 have to close no later than July 1, 2022. So the dilemma proposed is, does that happen soon, or on June 30, 2022? And everyone I’ve spoken with in this building and outside recognizes that it’s better if it happens June 30, 2022," Metropolis said. "This proposal doesn’t help us get there."
Metropolis says Talen hopes other bills will help Colstrip stay open as long as possible, and Ankney’s bill could get in the way of that effort.
Republican legislative leaders are promising a bill this year that would do what Talen is asking. There are so far no details beyond that it could provide companies associated with Colstrip some kind of tax break, among other options.
Republican leadership says that bill should be ready sometime this week.
The Senate Natural Resources committee didn’t take any action on Senator Duane Ankney’s bill, or it’s proposed amendments, during the hearing Monday.
Ankney is expected to introduce more bills on Colstrip during the legislative session, including a bill that would require companies leaving Colstrip to pay what’s being called a coal county impact fee.
That fee, which could amount to millions of dollars, would be paid to the local county, to fund school districts, workforce training, and other areas of the community disrupted by the power plant's closure.