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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Legal Settlement Could Speed Up Colstrip Closure

Colstrip power plant, Colstrip Montana.
Flicker User ambib (CC-BY-NC)
Colstrip power plant, Colstrip Montana.

A legal settlement reached Friday could have a big impact on the future of Colstrip – both to the coal-fired power plant there, and the town itself.

Some renewable energy advocates say the settlement means the Colstrip plant could shut down sooner than had been anticipated – maybe as early as 2027, instead of sometime in the 2040s. But that depends on a lot of variables, and Colstrip’s backers say it could stay open for decades.

Both sides, though, like that a west coast utility has agreed to send $10 million to Colstrip to help the community transition to a new future.

Duane Ankney, a former coal miner, represents Colstrip in the Montana senate. He says it’s another sign that his community won’t get what it deserves from the power plant’s out-of-state owners.

“It doesn’t make for good conversation around the dinner table," Ankney says. "You know? Kids in school, they talk. What are we going to do? Are we going to be able to stay in Colstrip? ”

Seattle-based Puget Sound Energy has a lot of influence over the answer to that question. It is the largest part-owner of the power plant. It negotiated the settlement with environmental groups and Montana’s attorney general, Tim Fox. Fox is pleased with the $10 million, but Ankney says it’s not enough. He hopes more will come from the other half dozen owners of Colstrip to help the town cope in the years to come.

“There ain't nothing better than throwing down that paycheck down on Friday night and knowing you’ve taken care of your family for the week," Ankney says. "And it looks like you’ll be able to do it next week. But when you lose that. And you start worrying about what will happen next year and the year after, it shortens your lifespan and takes your mind off your work.”

Eric Sell, a spokesman for Montana’s Attorney General’s office, says the $10 million fund for community transition wasn’t guaranteed when negotiations began earlier this year.

“This is a win for the town of Colstrip and win for the state of Montana in a sense that, and this is important, there wasn't a legal requirement, there wasn’t a legal stick to require PSE to pay these costs,” Sell says.  

Senator Ankney says he’s happy with how Attorney General Fox represented Montana. The settlement itself is part of rate review proceedings by Washington state’s utility regulator. Ankney sponsored a bill in this year’s legislative session that would have articulated Montana’s position in the rate case, but it didn’t pass.

For renewable energy advocates like Jeff Fox with Renewable Northwest, the settlement appears to shorten the "useful life" of the Colstrip plant by more than a decade.

“Useful life” is utility lingo meaning the company’s has finished paying off its investment in the power plant.

But that doesn’t mean the 2027 date ending Colstrip’s “useful life” is set in stone.

Still, Renewable Northwest’s Fox says the settlement is an opportunity for Montana to look past coal as a power export.

“I hope Montana understands how rapid the energy system is changing and what the long term prospects are for Colstrip,” Fox says. 

Jeff Fox says his group wants both money to help Colstrip to transition away from coal, and to look toward the future of other forms of energy Montana can sell to the west coast.

He says as the demand for coal power drops, the power lines and that move that Montana made electricity out of the state need to stay in place and be ready carry other sources of power.

“We want to make sure that Montana is in a good position to at least maintain our role as an energy exporter. We don’t have any time to waist," Fox says "And we really need to get some answers to these questions now, in order to be in a place where we can provide replacement power 1 and 2 come off line and in the future, potentially, when 3 and 4 come off line.”

Right now, Fox says growth of solar and wind energy in Montana could eventually fill the gap left by a shut-down in Colstrip but it’s currently handicapped by a lack of power lines linking remote energy producers here to the west coast. But Fox says with planning, there could be fixed.

The settlement that could speed up the timeline for the eventual shut down of Colstrip, and the $10 million fund for community transition is still pending at this point, and must be approved by Washington state regulators.

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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