MTPR

Gov. Bullock On The Future Of Colstrip

May 26, 2016

On Monday the operator of the Colstrip power plant said it wants out of its contract to run the coal-burning facility. Pennsylvania-based Talen Energy owns part of the plant and operates the entire facility. The company says it is losing millions of dollars there. Governor Bullock talked with MTPR’s Corin Cates Carney Wednesday.

Steve Bullock: We have some of the best wind potential in the nation. We have more and more solar companies wanting to come here. The best form of energy is conservation, and we have some real opportunities to actually do more with efficiency and conservation. So I think that there is an incredible amount of potential.

I think that Talen saying that they will no longer be operating — I guess they had to give notice under a contract 2 years in advance at least. I don' t think that should concern anybody too much.
 

Coal with the town of Colstrip in the background.
Credit Amy Martin

Corin Cates-Carney: You're visiting Colstrip next week. What do you tell workers there who are concerned about the future of Colstrip?

SB: Coal will continue to be an important part of our energy future. We have 28% of the nation's coal reserves. We do need to find ways to actually utilize coal and burn coal that's less impactful to the environment, and I think that steps are being made; and say to the workers that [I] continue to be working with you and fighting for you as we go forward. We know that the world's changing in many different ways, but from that perspective we'll continue to work.

CCC: You have a working group that's discussing this.  What is the plan for the future? Is there a plan?

SB: Look, the state can only do so much. Or I as an individual can only do so much in asmuch as it is a private company. Somebody said, 'should the state just assume and purchase Colstrip's Units 1 - 4?' No, I don't think that's a good idea by any means. The first step is actually to try to have a candid conversation with the CEOs and say, 'what are your interests?' Because there had been some interest expressed about the possibility of NorthWestern, another utility, transferring and purchasing Talen ...

CCC: NorthWestern is not interested any more, right?

SB: That's a question you'd have to pose to NorthWestern.

CCC: Didn't they say that during the meeting a couple weeks ago?

SB: I think that they said there would be significant hurdles. That's ultimately their decision, certainly not mine as governor. One of the things that they had expressed all throughout — and I think that anybody would — is saying that if there are going to be ownership changes that you have to make sure that the large customers will be engaged and interested and continue to buy power. So we've also had some discussions, we'll be having more with them. And to try to make sure that we are doing what we can to both protect those jobs and protect the community of Colstrip, because that is important to the entire state.

CCC: Some people who want to reduce the use of coal for environmental reasons say it's time to come up with a strategy to transition coal workers into new jobs, and compensate them if their jobs go away. Is this something that the Governor's office is, or should be working on?

SB: I think that's probably a little premature to think in those terms, that ultimately like, we know, over the next decades, certainly our energy future's going to look different, and we ought to be doing — be it Colstrip or everywhere else — all we can to make sure people are getting good jobs and having incredible opportunities, but I think that'd be putting the cart a little bit before the horse."

CCC: Why would it be doing that when you say that the way that states are approaching energy is changing? Why would that be premature then?

SB: Well I think it'd be premature because we'll continue to work to make sure those jobs stay in Colstrip. They're good jobs and we've powered the western United States for a long time. Our larger customers in Montana rely on getting energy from Colstrip 3 & 4, and I think that especially Colstrip 3 & 4, there's no question that that's going to continue to be here for decades.

CCC: What are some of the other options if NorthWestern Energy says they're not interested? What are some of the options for other people to operate there?

SB: I think that's part of the overall process of figuring out who would be interested. There was another article today that's saying when it comes to coal plants, often it's not one of the utility owners that run it, that there's professional operating crews that do it. So Colstrip and Colstrip 3 & 4 have a long life ahead of them and [I] would anticipate that another operator will step in as Talen exits.

Governor Steve Bullock is headed to Colstrip Tuesday as part of a series of “roundtables” on energy production and use that he’s holding around the state. People who live and work there have been critical of Bullock for not doing more to protect coal jobs.