NorthWestern Energy’s Laurel project brings criticism, support for new power plant

By: - April 23, 2023 6:04 pm

Residents from Laurel and Yellowstone County gather in the Laurel United Methodist Church to discuss the construction of a natural-gas fired power plant being built by NorthWestern Energy (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

LAUREL – A Sunday afternoon meeting that was meant to rally Yellowstone County residents against a natural gas-fired power plant brought out people who said the refinery and railroad town already has too many corporate polluters, but also a number of people who supported the construction.

The Yellowstone County Generation Station is currently under construction and under litigation. It sits near the banks of the Yellowstone River, not far away from the CHS refinery. NorthWestern Energy is building the 175-megawatt plant that has 18 reciprocating internal combustion engines at a cost of $250 million.

District court judge Michael Moses halted the plant’s progress, saying that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality failed to consider the impact that greenhouse gases would have on the environment, the equivalent of more than 160,000 cars’ worth of pollution annually. His decision spurred legislation in the Montana Legislature that would order the DEQ not to consider greenhouse gases, and also make environmental litigation more costly and cumbersome for resident and nonprofit groups.

The BNSF railyards in Laurel, Montana. A crane in the distance with smokestacks shows where a new 175-megawatt plant is being built by NorthWestern Energy (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

NorthWestern said it will appeal Moses’ decision to the Montana Supreme Court.

Sunday’s meeting, sponsored by the Northern Plains Resource Council and held at the Laurel United Methodist Church, was to present community concerns about the plant, as well as to hear from residents who live nearby.

“To be clear: We want to stop the methane power plant. That’s our goal,” said Mary Fitzpatrick, a member of Northern Plains and a former chairwoman of the board.

The meeting brought more than a 100 people to the event, and the organizers had sent a notice to every Laurel resident. Laurel is also home to one of the county’s three oil refineries and home to a large BNSF railyard.

Kasey Felder, whose property sits 2,300 feet from the new power plant, criticized NorthWestern Energy for being unconcerned about the welfare of the surrounding property owners.

“No one has talked with me about the health impacts and they haven’t talked to our neighbors,” she said. “And you know if any one of us had built something that was not permitted, we’d be stopped, but I guess it pays to have corporate lawyers.”

Her father, Laurel resident Steve Krum, said he retired as an oil refinery operator.

“No one is spouting off against oil and fossil fuels,” he said. “But it’s time to start planning for the future and thinking about our families and health.”

He and other organizers said with Moses’ decision, it’s time to rally community support to stop the plant from hurting property values and the environment.

“Our elected officials have made decisions before the plant was built,” Krum said. “The game feels stacked and the Legislature is not listening.”

Krum criticized NorthWestern Energy for proceeding to build the plant during the midst of litigation over the air quality permits as well as zoning concerns that are still pending before courts.

Krum also said NorthWestern’s permit, which said the operating noise at the border of the property is at 65 decibels, is not accurate. Sixty-five decibels is the sound of a loud conversation.

“We’re going to pay through the nose for a power plant that pollutes our community and destroys our property values,” he said.

Other residents criticized Northern Plains for what they saw as “propaganda.”

“Wind energy is not green and it’s not viable,” said resident Carlyn Fulton, who said that wind energy provides less than 8% of Montana’s energy needs. “I commend NorthWestern Energy for bringing it (the natural gas plant) into this community.”

Because natural gas is cleaner than coal, she said it was a good option for on-demand power.

“You can spew all the facts from the permit, but this decision was made by a very liberal district court judge, and he is not a scientist. You are not a scientist,” Fulton said to Krum. “You’re exaggerating. We need electricity, just look at the grids in Texas and California. Natural gas is predicted to stay cheap through at least 2027.”

Electrical Engineer George Wheatcroft speaks during a meeting in which organizer oppose the Laurel Generation Station being proposed by NorthWestern Energy. The meeting was held at the Laurel United Methodist Church on April 23, 2023 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

George Wheatcroft, who said he’d recently moved back after a career as an electrical engineer, said that even during the outages in Texas, which has good wind energy, more peak power was needed.

“You need peaking power, and as I read over this, 41% of the peak energy power from NorthWestern was from someplace else,” he said. “If we have a strong cold snap and we don’t have power, people will be desperate. We’re going to need more power sources.”

Dr. Robert Byron, a physician, and his wife, Lori, who is also a physician, spoke about the environmental health impacts of air pollution. In addition to being a board certified pediatrician, Dr. Lori Byron also has a master’s in energy policy.

“If we don’t do something about climate change, what we do in the exam rooms won’t do much to help,” said Dr. Robert Byron. “Our emissions are literally killing us – and not just the ones from our power plants.”

He pointed to data from the American Lung Association that shows that as many as 250,000 Americans die yearly from air pollutants.

“I have a wood stove in my house, as do many of you, I’m sure,” Dr. Robert Byron said. “We didn’t know about particulate matter, but now we do. It may not affect everybody, but we know that there are health risks associated with burning wood, and other products.”

For example, he noted that methane, which comprises the bulk of natural gas, is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Signs outside the Laurel United Methodist Church criticize NorthWestern Energy for building a natural gas fired power plant there (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Residents also were concerned that NorthWestern is incentivized to build the plant because of its guaranteed rate of return as a publicly regulated utility in Montana. Krum said that with a cost of $250 million for construction, the energy company has no incentive to look at building it cheaper.

“The more money it costs, the more profit they get,” Krum 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.