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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Lawmakers Work To Keep Colstrip Power Plant Running

Colstrip power plant, Montana
Courtesy Montana AFI-CIO
Colstrip power plant, Montana

Parts of the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip will shut down by 2022. But there’s a chance that the plant’s operators could pull out even sooner, creating an unforeseeable future for the community the power plant employs. Lawmakers in Helena say they have a plan that will help Colstrip stay open for as long as possible. During the Republican rebuttal to Governor Steve Bullock’s State of the State Address on Tuesday, House Speaker Austin Knudsen promised to bring forward a bill that will help keep Colstrip Units 1 and 2 open. On Thursday, Knudsen said that legislation is still in the works, and he’s not ready to talk about its details.

"It’s taking a little longer, drafting, than we had anticipated so it will probably be the first part of next week," says Knudsen.

Speaker Knudsen says the bill will aim to extend the operating life of Colstrip Units 1 and 2. Units 1 and 2 are older and less energy efficient than the power plant’s other two generators. A lawsuit that was settled last year between the power plant’s operators and environmental groups requires the partial closure of Colstrip by 2022

"There are many factors that could force them to close earlier," says Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC). MEIC was part of the lawsuit that resulted in the agreement to close units 1 and 2.

"There is uncertainty surrounding this plant," Hedges says. "It depends on who you talk to and on what day. And whether they are the political arm of these utilities or the legal arm of these utilities. There is a lot of confusion about what they intend to do, but all we know for sure it's that they cannot be open beyond that date."

Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen says Montana lawmakers could influence how long Cosltrip stays open.

"There are several moving parts, but yeah. I’ve been in contact with some of the leadership and some of these companies and they think there is a path to keeping Colstrip units 1 and 2 open until 2022, and not closing immediately," Knudsen says. "I think as legislators we have a responsibility to at least try and help them do that if it’s possible."

Earlier this month, Puget Sound Energy, a 50 percent owner of Colstrip units 1 and 2 based in Washington State, told utility regulators that parts of the power plant could close as early as the middle of next year. Puget testified to Washington State utility regulators that the timeline for the partial closure of Colstrip will depend, in part, on what Talen Energy does. Talen is the other 50 percent owner of Colstrip units 1 and 2.

Talen has stated in public testimony that it’s losing money continuing to operate in Colstrip.

"What the new management of Talen has communicated to me is that they’ve changed their tact, and they would like to work with the Legislature and the State of Montana to try and keep Colstrip 1 and 2 open at least until 2022," says Knudsen. "But, they’re going to need some help to do that and I’m hoping we can get something together that helps them do that."

Knudsen declined to say what Montana lawmakers could offer Talen Energy to convince them to keep operating units 1 and 2 in Colstrip until 2022. When asked specifically if his forthcoming proposal could include some kind of tax break for companies associated with the Colstrip, he said it could. But Knudsen said there could be other ideas to help keep the plant open. He declined to discuss details.

A representative from Talen Energy declined to comment for this story.

Knudsen says the bill he promised on the night of the State of the State Address will likely come out early next week. He says ideally, that bill will join the handful of other proposals regarding the partial closure of Colstrip, currently being discussed in Legislature, and become one bill that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can get behind.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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