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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bill Would Empower The State To Buy Colstrip Power Plant

Power plant at Colstrip, MT.
Beth Saboe
Power plant at Colstrip, MT.

Lawmakers in Helena are starting to debate whether the state could borrow up to $500 million to buy the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip

The future of the plant is up in the air. The West Coast consumers who Colstrip sends most of its power to are pushing away from coal-powered electricity due to climate change concerns. Coal power is also becoming more expensive relative to electricity generated by natural gas and renewables.

"There’s many people that work at Colstrip asked me to introduce a bill to save their jobs,” Billings Republican Representative Rodney Garcia said.

Garcia introduced the Montana Energy Security Act (HB 203), Monday. It would allow the state to sell bonds to finance the purchase of the coal-fired power plant, and allow plant workers to keep all the benefits they had under their private employer.

The Colstrip plant employs roughly 360 people, a workforce that’s the backbone of the town of Colstrip, which has a population of more than 2,000.

“My intention is to keep this open, running and keeping the economy strong in Montana.” Garcia said.

Rep. Rodney Garcia (R) - HD52.
Credit Montana Legislature
Rep. Rodney Garcia (R) - HD52.

Two of Colstrip’s four units are already scheduled to close no later than 2020, the result of a federal Clean Air Act lawsuit.

The two newer, cleaner burning, units will remain online. But energy policies adopted in Washington and Oregon are trimming those states’ use of coal-fired electricity.

The city of Colstrip and Rosebud County are both backing the bill that could allow Montana to buy the power plant.

Bob Gilbert spoke on behalf of the local governments during the bill’s first hearing.

“To those who say 'government should never own a business,' I feel that way myself. But there are instances. Don't dismiss it as a bad idea because you don't think the government should own it.”

The Montana AFL-CIO is also backing the bill.

Critics of the idea say acquiring Colstrip is a financial risk for the state. They also say the bill has numerous flaws, including creation of a new five-member commission elected by the public, which would ultimately make the purchase decision.

Anne Hedges is with the Montana Environmental Information Center.

“This is a terrible idea. This won’t work, as it's written. There are much better ways to help, not only the community of Colstrip, but the economy of that area,” Hedges said.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce, and the Montana Taxpayers Association, joined MEIC and other environmental groups opposing the bill.

One thing all sides agree on is that something needs to be done to help the community of Colstrip as its out-of-state clients move away from coal. However it’s unclear what that help will look like.

The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan contained a workforce development program to help coal  workers move away from coal dependent jobs. President Trump signed an executive order to remove the Clean Power Plan soon after taking office. 

Representative Rodney Garcia says he is open to amending his bill.

“Give me some time, I’ll make changes to this bill and it'll be appealing to everyone, hopefully.”

As Montana lawmakers consider buying the Colstrip power plant, legislators in Washington state are nearing an initial vote on whether to eliminate all coal-fired power costs from their utilities.

This could include Puget Sound Energy, which owns a 50 percent share of Colstrip older units 1 and 2 and a 25 percent in units 3 and 4.  

Washington Senator Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat from Seattle, is one of the sponsors of the legislation supported by the state’s governor, Jay Inslee.

In a Washington state legislative hearing last week, Carlyle said his state needs to contribute to the agreement reached among the United Nations to create a global response to combat climate change.

“Doubling down on every level to try to get toward the Paris Accord is a public obligation, it’s a moral responsibility,” Carlyle said.

The proposal for Washington to cut ties with coal-fired power by the end of 2025 could get an initial vote later this week. With it may come another sign for Colstrip’s future.

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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