Montana looks at next steps for Colstrip

Transmission, renewables a hope; others look to coal

By: - March 8, 2021 6:10 am

Colstrip power plant in Colstrip, Montana (Photo by Larry Mayer/Getty Images).

Less than two years ago, just over the border in Campbell County, Wyoming, around 700 coal workers lost their jobs when the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines shut down.  It is a fate many in Montana’s coal country, like the home of the Colstrip power plant, fear is in their future.

Colstrip Republican Sen. Duane Ankney has introduced two bills, Senate Bills 86 and 87, that he said would protect citizens from the fallout of plant closures.  But opponents of the bills argue they miss the opportunity to invest in the community’s future.

SB 86 would require energy companies to pay into a trust to support those who own property that would be affected by the closure of a coal-fired power plant and SB 87 would allow municipalities to reclaim water rights owned by coal-fired utilities.

Ankney said these steps are needed to ensure the Colstrip community can weather the closing of the powerplant. The plant, and the Rosebud coal mine where the plant gets its coal, employ almost 800 full-time workers.  Because of Colstrip’s reliance on coal and isolated location far from larger cities and towns with more options for employment, a loss of coal jobs could be catastrophic to residents.

“If the plants close, the loss of property tax costs from the plants will likely exceed $1.8 million. This cost could be shifted to the remaining taxpayers but with 700-plus estimated job losses, closure of the mine and other business there won’t be many people left to share the burden. The reality would be budget cuts and layoffs,” Doug, Martens, Rosebud County Commissioner, said via email.

But the community faces a bleak reality: By most metrics, the coal industry is dying.

Coal consumption in the United States has been in steady decline for more than a decade.  In 2019, the country used just over half as much coal as it did in 2007 and, according to a recent study done by the investment bank Morgan Stanley, coal will no longer be used by 2033.

The reasons for the decline are many.  Natural gas is cheaper and advances in technology for gas extraction have made getting it much easier.  Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are becoming ever more reliable and, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, coal is the most polluting of all energy sources, making it a target for environmental and climate change related policy. President Joe Biden recently created a working group to “advance projects that reduce toxic emissions and greenhouse gasses” and Biden campaigned on a promise to make the United States’ energy sector carbon-emission free by 2035.

“It ain’t gonna do [Colstrip] any good,” Ankney said of the Biden administration’s goals.

SB 86, which has been referred to the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee, of which Ankney is the chair, would allow owners of land affected by the closure of a coal-fired generating unit to apply for help with clean-up from pollution, reclaim land or even help with mortgage payments.

“For those stuck in a mortgage where they can’t sell their house, there will be money in that fund to help them get out of water on that mortgage,” said Ankney.

Martens, the Rosebud County Commissioner, said that SB 86 would be a “valuable tool to property owners in the Colstrip area.”  He said that If the plant were to close prematurely it would create problems, some of them unforeseen, that would require financial assistance.

The bill, which would require out-of-state owners of the power plant to pay into the account, assumes that there is no future for Colstrip outside of coal and would penalize power plant owners for shutting down, said Anne Hedges, Executive Director of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

“Colstrip has transmission capabilities that are the envy of every town in the West.  You get help paying down your mortgage, but are you going to stay in that house? Wouldn’t it be better to have a job?” she said.

Hedges said the funds Ankney is talking about could be better invested in using those transmission lines to support renewable energy projects like NextEra Energy Resources windfarm that is scheduled to be constructed outside Colstrip this year, creating new jobs.

Another opportunity would be to invest in cleaning up the current plant. A study done by the Northern Plains Resource Council— a conservation and agriculture group based in Billings—showed that environmental cleanup of the toxic coal ash left behind from the plant, could be started before the plant closes and could create over 600 jobs.

Hedges added the bill will be hard to implement because it does not give enough direction for how the money will be dispersed.  As it is written, it would be up to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to disseminate the funds.

“DEQ is not set up to do that, it’s not their job,” Hedges said.

The other bill, SB 87, would allow the town to assume control of the system that pumps water from the Yellowstone River to the plant and the town.

“We got to keep that water flowing,” said Ankney, who oversaw a hearing about the bill and others relating to the future of coal in Montana, including a resolution introduced by Senator Jason Small to ask Congress for funding to institute carbon capture technologies at the Colstrip Power plant, on the 18th.

Martenssaid that “the cost associated with pumping the water and maintain[ing] the system are much higher than the city can afford.”

During the hearing, Martens stood in favor of the bill, along with many others including Mayor of Colstrip John Williams.

The pumps used by the power plant are huge and pump enough water to supply the generating units and supply Colstrip, much more than the town of a little over 2,000 needs.  Hedges, of MEIC—who opposed the bill in hearing— said that before purchasing the pumps, a study should be done to gauge how much water the town truly needs, which may show a possibility for a cheaper alternative, something that NextEra Energy Resources, the company building what will be Montana’s largest windfarm just outside of Colstrip, has offered $100,00 for.

“I agree with Senator Ankney that there is a real water problem in Colstrip, but this bill really puts the cart before the horse,” she said.

The plant is co-owned by six companies, Avista, Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric, Talen Energy, Pacificorp and Northwestern Energy.  Three of those owners—Avista, Puget Sound Energy and Pacificorp— will stop using the plant by 2027, a fourth—Oregon based Portland General Electric—will have to exit Colstrip by 2030 due to a state law requiring an end to the use of coal for energy.

Four of the owners, Portland General Electric, Avista, Pacificorp and Puget Sound Energy, stood in opposition to SB 87 during the hearing.  Tom Ebzery, a lawyer representing PGE and Avista, said the bill was “unnecessary, unworkable, unattainable and unreasonable” in his testimony.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed SB 87 on a third reading, with 43 Senators voting in support.  The bill will now move to the House.

Although these bills plan for a day when the plant goes dark, Ankney hopes that day will not come.

“It’s what I do, I try to get somebody interested in it.  It’s not going to be like it was and it’ll probably only be one unit, maybe.  But I think there’s still some interest and, you know, never give up, right?” he said.

Pete Zimmerman is a freelance reporter and a graduate student at the University of Montana School of Journalism. In a former life, he worked as a wilderness guide in Southeast Alaska.

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