Coal-fired GOP abandons free markets in favor of state-run solutions

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

Republicans, please sit down now. Even though most of you have good, reliable state-sponsored health insurance, I don’t want to be the cause of anyone fainting in disbelief.

One of several things Gov. Greg Gianforte got right during this legislative session — that was otherwise regressive and mean-spirited — came via veto when he gave a thoughtful, eloquent explanation of why he was putting the ol’ executive kibosh on legislation that would have put requirements on how much wineries had to ferment onsite in order to call the wine “Made in Montana.”

The Republican governor said if he signed the legislation into law, it would essentially give a legalized advantage to already existing wineries and allow the government to pick winners and losers when the market for booze in this state is already robust.

There are fewer things more free market and consumer driven in this state than the selection of alcohol, and Gianforte understood that palettes not politicians should make the decision.

Yet for all the talk of the sanctity of free markets, it’s astonishing that Republicans continue to coalesce behind coal. That theme continued in 2021, as it has for several sessions, as lawmakers, led by the mustachioed Duane Ankney, tried all kinds of legislative magic to save an aging power plant in southern Montana.

I suppose Republicans won’t like it that what they planned to do to save Colstrip was literally the textbook definition of socialism (a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole). You see, it sounds kind of powerful and confident to call your political rivals socialists or communists, but it’s rather astonishing when any American politician actually practices it. Yet, here we are.

I am still puzzled as to why so much effort is poured into Colstrip when a power plant in Glendive was shuttered with hardly a lawmaker mention. And the Corette Power Plant in Billings, the former focal point along Interstate 90 as you drove through the state’s largest city, has vanished along with its coal pile.

Nonetheless, lawmakers have tried all manner of legal contortions to save Colstrip, including passing such onerous legislation that’s currently being fought in both state and federal court. Lawmakers have tried valiantly to saddle the next generation of Montanans with untold clean-up costs and environmental liabilities as they schemed to sell the plant to the state for 100 pennies. Let’s not forget about this year’s attempt to cut the Public Service Commission completely out of the regulation of Colstrip if the companies would just promise to keep pouring on the coal.

The lawmakers’ dander had been mightily raised when the all-Republican PSC wouldn’t go along with Colstrip’s plan to pass along deferred maintenance costs to ratepayers when the plant’s operational decision-making came under fire.

So this group of Republican lawmakers who gets all sentimental and teary-eyed about the free market and accuses Democrats at every turn of being socialists or communists — and yet can’t explain the difference between the two — wants the state to step in and run the plant.

Why is it so hard for Republicans to understand that the market has spoken when it comes to coal? If the same consumers are smart enough to read a wine label, why aren’t they equally intelligent when it comes to making energy decisions?

This is absolutely the free market working — and why is it so hard to imagine people wanting a choice that is better for the environment, even if it costs a little more?

But it got worse as the same party that cried big crocodile tears about the First Amendment being under attack from the godless — so much so that they had to pass a Religious Freedom bill just to prove Montana’s undying loyalty to the Constitution — were the same ones who nearly passed a state-funded inquisition into any environmental group that had dared oppose coal. So, freedom of religion? Sure. Freedom of association, freedom to redress grievances and freedom of speech? Not so much.

These fiscal conservatives had set aside taxpayer money to fund lawyers to investigate environmental groups. So much for small government.

The irony, of course, is that if Republicans would just have the faith they espouse in the free market, they’d see the answer clearly in front of them. The history of the free market has always been one where a good idea is eclipsed by a better one. The market is speaking clearly on coal, as renewables, batteries, even natural gas replaces a dirty and dangerous older power source. The beautiful part about the free market in Colstrip is: It’s working.

Colstrip has an amazing opportunity. The infrastructure, including power lines, are there. The community is ready. All they’d have to do is encourage a conversion of power sources and Colstrip’s future could be much more certain than backroom deals to keep coal on life support.

The market has spoken. So why do Republicans refuse to listen?