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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

House Committee Tables Ankney's Colstrip Retirement Bill

Duane Ankney, the Republican Senator from Colstrip
Mike Albans
Duane Ankney, the Republican Senator from Colstrip

The town ofColstrip’s biggest champion in the Legislature walked out of the south entrance of the Capitol building Monday night disappointed.

His proposal aiming to secure the social and economic future of his home town, as parts of the coal-fired power plant there are scheduled to go off line in coming years, failed to pass out of a House committee.

Republican Duane Ankney had been working on his plan since last summer. Ten days earlier, the Senate had approved it by a wide margin.

“Disappointment, yeah, I’m really disappointed in some people," Ankney said. "But I mean, I’m 71 years old. I’ve been disappointed by a lot of people. But I made sure they knew it.”

Senate bill 338, Ankney’s Colstrip “Retirement Act” failed to pass out of committee on an 8-8 vote.

“I didn’t lose nothing. I had nothing to gain by this bill. But Montanans did,” he said.

In 2013, the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center sued the owners of Colstrip under the federal Clean Air Act.

Last summer that lawsuit was settled, requiring the plant’s two older, dirtier, coal-burning electric turbines to shut down by 2022, at the latest, leaving the plant’s two newer units open.

Since that settlement was announced, Ankney, other lawmakers, and state officials have tried to come up with a plan to help ease the impact those plant closures are going to have on the town that depends on it.

Senate Bill 338 was a big part of Ankney’s plan. The six term Republican says the bill would have required the owners of the plant to guarantee money to Colstrip when Units 1 and 2 shut down, funding the school district and local taxes.

“The fact is it would have give say some young person - 30 years old, a couple kids, into a 250,000 dollar mortgage, he's going to get laid off - It would have provided some assistance to that individual," Ankney said. "It would have given him some hope. And right now, to them, it looks like that state, you know, turned her back on them.”

“Those are tragic things, but it is not the role of the state of Montana to force a company to do that," Derek Skees, a Kalispell Republican who voted against Ankney’s bill told the committee Monday. He said that this kind of thing has happened before all over Montana.

“It’s difficult to have to see this community have to go through this," Skees said. "I have also seen one of our good representative’s communities just now suffer the loss of Weyerhaeuser which is going to damage a community that was already damaged by the loss of CFAC, which was the Aluminum plant up in Columbia Falls. The state did nothing for either one of those scenarios. There are a dozen scenarios that I can list that the state did not get involved in. So this bill is precedent setting.”

Seven Republicans voted against Republican Senator Ankney’s bill, six Democrats voted to support it. But in the end, the committee deadlocked eight to eight, meaning the bill dies in the House committee, barring extraordinary action by the House to bring it to a floor vote.

Nate McConnell, a Democrat from Missoula, supported it.

“What this bill really is is an opportunity to put Montanans first," said McConnell. "We have an opportunity to say to a company that has made a lot of money off of the blood, sweat and tears of our workers, who has benefited a community b ut also who has taken from that community. And I think it is important for us to say to that company, those companies, hey, you can’t leave us high and dry.”

The owners of Colstrip Units 1 and 2 are Talen Energy, whose parent company is based in New York, and Puget Sound Energy based in Washington state.

Both companies opposed Ankney’s bill, saying it would require the Cosltrip’s owner to pay an exit fee to the State of Montana.

Puget Sound Energy told lawmakers that passing the bill would mean, “that the state condones punishing businesses for making a perfectly legitimate (and legal) business decision based on market conditions. This is the wrong message for the state to send ...”

A statement from Puget also says the company will invest more than $200 million dollars for remediation of Colstrip for many years, and commit to job re-training for Cosltrip employees.

Colstrip Senator Duane Ankney says the coming closure is part of a pattern in Montana.

“We’ve got 125- 150 years of history of these big companies coming in, pulling in out and leaving a hole in Montana," he said.

Ankney says his bill wouldn’t keep Colstrip from becoming a part of that history, just make it a little easier for the people who remain.

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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