State utility regulators have agreed with NorthWestern Energy’s request to block details on its new coal supply contract from becoming public — at least for the moment. This comes as Montana’s biggest utility moves to buy a larger share of the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip.
NorthWestern Energy argues its agreement detailing costs and supply for coal to feed Colstrip Units 3 and 4 contains trade secrets and other information protecting it from public view.
The coal supply deal could impact what NorthWestern Energy’s customers pay for the energy coming from the company's proposed 25 percent additional share at one of the power plan units.
The five members of Montana’s Public Service Commission voted unanimously to keep the full coal agreement a secret. The vote will not keep potential interveners in the case, like the Montana Consumer Counsel, from seeing details.
But the commission agreed to look at the deal and determine what parts of it could be made available to the larger public.
“Over time we can go in and make that decision," says Bob Lake, the PSC Vice-Chairman. "What should be, what should not be, and come up with the correct decision legally and what is best for the people of Montana,” Lake said.
A group of seven Democratic state lawmakers earlier this month wrote a letter to PSC commissioners urging more information on NorthWestern Energy activity at Colstrip.
The letter was written by Democratic members of the Legislative Consumer Committee and Energy and Telecommunications Committee. It said lawmakers have been, "hamstrung by not having good information about the underlying costs and benefits of the Colstrip facility and impacts to ratepayers."
It also asked the PSC to minimize the use of protective orders like the one granted to NorthWestern Energy’s coal supply.
Mary McNally, a Billings state Senator, signed onto the letter. She said, “I didn’t really expect that they would change course, the PSC, necessarily. But I hope that going forward that this will open up. We’ll see.”
PSC commissioners and their staff say the agency will review the coal supply agreement to see what the law allows to be disclosed. But because of the length and complexity of the document, it’s unclear how long that might take.