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Why Colstrip's Future Could Be Decided In Washington State

Montana State Senator Duane Ankney joined other Montana and Washington policymakers to discuss the future of the Colstrip power plant.
Eric Whitney
Montana State Senator Duane Ankney joined other Montana and Washington policymakers to discuss the future of the Colstrip power plant.

About a dozen Montanans were in Spokane Wednesday to talk to Washington state lawmakers about legislation that would impact the Colstrip coal-fired power plant southeast of Billings.

The Colstrip plant is partially owned by several Washington utilities, and exports a lot of the electricity it generates to Washington. But now, forecasts are for coal power to get more expensive. So Washington utilities are asking their lawmakers them to let them potentially find cheaper energy options. Options that could lead them to shut down part of Colstrip.

Montana State Senator Duane Ankney, a Republican from Colstrip, urged his Washington counterparts to be careful.

"When we lose 3 or 400 good, living wage jobs, you don't go out the next day and find another one of these jobs."

Three other Montana senators echoed Ankney's comments at the work session of the Washington state Senate energy committee, as did representatives from Governor Steve Bullock's office and Public Service Commissioner Bob Lake. Union representatives also spoke up for Colstrip jobs.

The Montana Environmental Information Center's Jim Jensen was the lone environmental voice at the meeting. He said Colstrip's oldest generators are dirty and expensive and should be shut down quickly.

Puget Sound Energy, the utility company in Washington that owns a big stake of the Colstrip coal-fired electricity plant in Montana is facing numerous challenges to keep it open. That's what representatives of the company told Montana and Washington state lawmakers at a meeting Wednesday in Spokane.

Puget Sound Energy imports a lot of electricity from Colstrip, and Washington state regulators watch them closely to make sure they keep costs down. Company vice president Steve Secrist told lawmakers that the price of electricity from coal could go up significantly due to several factors, including new carbon dioxide limits proposed by the EPA in August.

"Second: Carbon Washington. This is the environmental group pushing to enact a carbon tax by citizen initiative. This proposal would establish a carbon tax of approximately $25 a ton."

Washington's governor is also talking about a cap on carbon emissions that could affect Colstrip. Washington regulators are studying how much it would cost to shut down and clean up Colstrip. If it's cheaper to shut the plant down and buy electricity from other sources, hundreds of jobs at Colstrip could disappear.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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