HELENA – In a two-hour span Thursday – a state Senate panel heard, and then passed, a bill that supporters said could keep the two largest coal-fired power plants at Colstrip operating well into the future.
The bill would enable NorthWestern Energy to buy the plants for $1. But opponents said NorthWestern ratepayers would end up paying much more in long-term costs.
Under Senate Bill 278, NorthWestern could buy part or all of Colstrip plants 3 and 4 and an associated power line from its other owners, primarily mostly other utilities in Washington and Oregon.
These utilities have said they’d like to get out of coal, and NorthWestern would buy the plants for $1.
“This bill creates the opportunity for NorthWestern to explore options with the other owners or some of them to acquire a larger interest at no cost to our customers, and increase our ability to provide reliable and affordable electricity on a 24-by-7 basis,” said David Hoffman of NorthWestern Energy.
Supporters of the bill, including organized labor, said it’s a chance to save these plants from premature closure and the jobs and tax benefits that come with them.
“I would say it’s the give-Colstrip-a-chance bill,” said Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad.
But the bill also says any other costs associated with NorthWestern’s ownership – operation, maintenance, additional investment, cleanup – must be covered by NorthWestern’s customers – the ratepayers.
Opponents said it amounts to a “blank check” for NorthWestern with no oversight by the Public Service Commission.
“I would not be surprised if Senate Bill 278, if passed, were the largest blank check given to a utility by its customers, in the history of Montana regulation, and probably the entirety of the United States,” said Diego Rivas of the Northwest Energy Coalition.
But Republicans on the Senate Energy Committee, including Colstrip Senator Duane Ankney, quickly approved the bill Thursday, sending it to the Senate floor.
“Of course, I’m in this thing, you know, I’m there, I live there. I mean, these guys who work there are my best friends,” said Ankey. “But, that aside, you’re still getting something for nothing.”
Democrats on the panel said if acquiring Colstrip is good for Montana and ratepayers, why does the bill cut out the regulators?
“Why do we have to have an end-around of the Public Service Commission? Why can’t we go through the normal Public Service Commission process? They’d have to be crazy to turn it down, wouldn’t they?” asked Sen. Dick Barrett (D-Missoula).
The Senate floor debate will occur within the next few days.
-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News