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The latest Montana politics, elections and Legislature news.

Montana House Committee Tables Bill Allowing Utilities To Pass Coal Costs To Customers

A bill that would have allowed Montana’s largest electric utility to recover costs and a rate of return from its customers for coal-fired power generation was tabled in committee Wednesday.

Senate Bill 379 from Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls has drawn heated testimony from supporters who say it would ensure NorthWestern Energy customers a reliable source of power from Colstrip and opponents who say customers would be saddled with costs the utility never spent.

The policy passed through the Senate earlier this month but was tabled in the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee on a 11-1 vote Wednesday.

"This shouldn't be a political decision, and that's what this has become. This is an economic decision and it's an economic decision that affects the entire state, a bunch of rate payers,” says Rep. Katie Zolnikov, a Republican from Billings.

Zoliknov said utility regulators on the Montana Public Service Commission are better equipped than lawmakers to review the terms for how a company buys or leases a power plant and the potential impact on electric bills.

Regulators opposed the now-tabled bill.

Rep. Geraldine Custer, a Republican from Forsyth, said she’d support the bill so NorthWestern could meet its energy demands.

“If we don't pass this bill are they not going to be able to purchase power from [Colstrip Units] 3 and 4 if there's some power there to purchase?” Custer asks.

NorthWestern Energy, which currently owns a 30% share in Colstrip Unit 4, sought to buy an additional share last year but that deal with Puget Sound Energy fell through.

Late Tuesday, NorthWestern announced it entered into contracts for 325 megawatts from a forthcoming natural gas plant in Laurel, a battery storage system and hydroelectric resources.

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