Big Sky Roundup

Gianforte signs Colstrip fuel mix bill vetoed under Bullock

By: - May 18, 2021 1:54 pm

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

Gov. Greg Gianforte last week signed House Bill 648, legislation quietly amended in the latter days of the 2021 legislative session to allow power plant operators at Colstrip to buy coal from a new source with limited environmental oversight.

Environmental groups, Westmoreland Mining, which operates the Rosebud mine that currently supplies Colstrip, and the union representing the mine workers had been arguing against the bill, saying the amendment, added by bill sponsor Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, could have dire implications for a mine already in a precarious position as the world turns away from the fuel source.

Westmoreland wrote the governor in early May asking him to veto the bill, citing language amended into HB648 with minimal explanation in a free conference committee that would exempt Colstrip operator Talen from provisions in the Montana Major Facility Siting Act if it sought a new fuel source for the plant — for example, refined coal or coal extracted at a different mine.

The amended language revived a bill vetoed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock with similar provisions.

Rosebud almost exclusively services the Colstrip plant, so if the plant owners were to buy coal at a cheaper rate elsewhere, the whole mine would become financially unfeasible. That’s not to mention the loss in revenues from the coal severance tax. But Westmoreland is under a contract with Talen that goes to 2025, so immediate changes under the bill are unlikely unless Talen finds or buys a way out of that arrangement. And it’s not clear how such a change would affect contracts with other firms who have stake in Colstrip, such as NorthWestern Energy.

Talen would also have to get permits to build the rail and unloading facilities necessary to bring in coal from another source, as well as readapt the Colstrip facility, which was designed to burn Rosebud coal.

A spokesperson for Gianforte could not be reached for comment.

In the letter requesting a veto, Westmoreland raised the possibility of a legal challenge to the validity of the process by which the amendments to HB648 were added, arguing that the new language goes beyond the original scope of the bill. But when or in what form such a challenge could materialize is not yet clear.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.