Protestors gather to oppose NorthWestern’s proposed Yellowstone County power plant

By: - February 10, 2022 7:24 pm

Barb Emineth of Laurel speaks about NorthWestern’s proposal to put a natural-gas power plant in that town. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Between 100 and 200 people gathered on the lawn of the Yellowstone County Courthouse to protest NorthWestern Energy’s proposal to build a natural-gas fired electric plant in Laurel.

The event, sponsored by the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council and the Northern Plains Resource Council, had speakers, signs and signing. Most of the signs warned of the climate impacts of the facility, which would be downwind from the state’s largest city, Billings, the site of the Thursday protest.

At least one of the speakers at the podium was wearing shorts, on a February day that averages 38 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. The temperature at the time was nearly 30 degrees warmer than average.

A group of more than a dozen speakers told the crowd that NorthWestern Energy, along with the Public Service Commission, was committing Montana to fossil fuels and higher rates, while ignoring other renewable resources, claims a NorthWestern spokesperson disputes. Most of the speakers said that public pressure was needed at all levels of government to stop the plant’s construction and its 13 methane-powered turbines.

Larry Bean, the vice president of the YVCC, said that many homes use natural gas to heat and if power producers continue to rely on it, customers will suffer from several energy companies relying on the same commodity, leading to spikes in billing and higher rates.

Moreover, Bean said the air quality will continue to deteriorate.

“How many days did we have last year where we were warned not to go outside because of air quality? Ten? Fifteen? Well, this will likely add one or two more days. And that will mean one or two more days that kids can’t ride their bikes or play soccer,” Bean said.

An aerial view of the Yellowstone County Generation Station in Laurel, a proposed natural gas fired power plant south of the CHS refinery (in the background). (Photo courtesy of NorthWestern Energy)

Jo Dee Black, a spokeswoman for NorthWestern, said that an increased natural gas line will help expand capacity for the growing county. She said that pipeline will be owned by NorthWestern, which will help control costs.

She told the Daily Montanan that a third party had put out requests for proposals for more power generation in the state and it selected this one, but also selected the Beartooth Battery Storage project, which would store energy. However, that storage isn’t large enough to protect customers from peak days, typically seen at the hottest and coldest days of the year.

Black said that NorthWestern is charged with keeping a reliable and cost-efficient power supply and that renewables, like wind, don’t always cover those “peak demand” times. She pointed out that for 69 hours, NorthWestern had to buy power on the market during the same time as a polar vortex crippled parts of Texas. Because of that, consumers paid more for power. Black said the Yellowstone County Generation Station, as the plant is called, will help lessen the chance of needing power at high-demand times.

She said that 69 percent of the state’s power load comes from “carbon free” sources like solar, wind or hydropower. However, those sources are intermittent and the more Montana grows, the more carbon-free power must be balanced by “on demand” power, or energy that can be created when the demand fluctuates.

Bean and Gray Harris helped form the citizens’ group decades ago as Billings wrestled with sulfur dioxide emissions from the county’s three petroleum refineries. Bean said this latest proposal by NorthWestern feels like history repeating itself.

“We worked so hard to clean our image and the environment, and part of that was methane,” Bean said. “Now, we’re seeing it back. How do you think this look to new business and young people as they consider Billings a place to live?”

Fred LaBeau of Laurel, Montana holds a sign as cars pass by on North 27th Street of Billings Montana. He was protesting NorthWestern Energy’s plan to build a methane-fired power plant in Laurel, 15 miles away from the Yellowstone County Courthouse (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Fred LaBeau stood on the sidewalk next to one of the city’s largest thoroughfares, North 27th Street, holding a sign, and he got various responses from motorists.

“I’m from Laurel,” he said. “Where they’re trying to put that sonafbitching plant.”

Dr. Rob Byron, an internist and co-author of the most recent Montana Climate Assessment, said that residents don’t realize how much pollution will be emitted by the plant. He said it’s the equivalent of 167,000 gas-burning car engines.

“Carbon dioxide and methane pollution doesn’t respect borders,” he said. “It will affect everyone – Billings, Huntley, everyone down wind. Seventy-five thousand to 250,000 each year die prematurely from air pollution in the United States.”

Pari Kemmick, a field manager for Forward Montana, spoke about moving elsewhere, but coming back to her hometown of Billings to make a difference for the next generation of Yellowstone County residents.

“I don’t want to lose the energy and talent of the younger generation. I want to make an impact on the community that raised me, and if we want the future generation to come here, we have to stop investing in things that harm us,” Kemmick said. “I believe Billings and Montana can lead the nation in clean, renewable energy.”

Marena Mahto, a Native student at Montana State University-Billings, said that she was at Standing Rock during the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff. She said when she was there, she saw residents from Billings and Montana standing with her.

“I saw the blatant disrespect of corporations for the people. I was there when the dogs attacked 10,000. You were there to stand with my people. Now, I am here to stand with you as we say no to the pipeline,” Mahto said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.