HELENA — A House committee Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to kill the controversial bill meant to encourage NorthWestern Energy to acquire a larger share of the Colstrip 4 power plant in southeast Montana.
The House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee voted 11-1 to “table” or kill Senate Bill 379, likely ending the emotionally charged journey of a bill promoted as a way to extend the life of the aging Colstrip plant.
Republican members of the panel said they couldn’t support a bill aimed at helping a single company or plant – or, that removes portions of the state Public Service Commission’s authority to regulate and set rates for a utility purchase.
“This shouldn’t be a political decision,” said Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings. “It should be an economic decision.”
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who chairs the committee, also said while Republicans “love coal” and want to do whatever they can to prolong the operation of the remaining power plants at Colstrip, he isn’t convinced that SB379 would do that.
The only member voting in favor of the bill was Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, whose district includes Colstrip.
The Colstrip plants are co-owned by NorthWestern Energy and five other utilities from Oregon and Washington. The out-of-state utilities plan to abandon coal-fired power in the coming years. Two of the four plants shut down last year.
Under SB379, if NorthWestern Energy acquired an additional share of the plants from the other owners, the PSC would still have the power to approve it – but would be required, in law, to place very specific costs into the rates of NorthWestern’s Montana customers.
The PSC, which regulates utilities, opposed the bill, saying it severely restricted how the commission would assess whether those costs should be allowed in rates.
Other opponents of the bill said it would lock in high costs for ratepayers for years, when cheaper, cleaner power is, or will be, available.
Some called the bill a “corporate bailout” that could overcharge the company’s ratepayers.
“Essentially what this bill does is say, `Hey, Legislature – we don’t want to go to the (Public Service Commission) and have this great deal approved by the commission," PSC Commissioner James Brown, R-Dillon, told the House Energy committee last week. “No, it’s such a great deal that the Legislature needs to set the terms of the purchase.”
NorthWestern Energy and officials and unions representing Colstrip plant workers lobbied hard for the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls.
They said NorthWestern customers need the additional, and reliable, power that a bigger share of Colstrip could provide, and argued it would be at a reasonable cost. They also said the bill would help ensure the Colstrip plants will operate well into the future.
The bill had passed the Senate earlier this month on a largely party-line vote, with Republicans in favor.