Energy Environment Legislature Montana Politics

The Community of Colstrip will be a Defining Moment for the Future of Montana Democrats (and Republicans)

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This is a defining moment for Democrats in Montana, not to mention their Republican counterparts.

Later this week, the Montana Senate will hear Senate Bill 338 in committee. This legislation holds massive companies accountable for their actions by requiring them to cover the decommissioning costs associated with closing a major power plant, like the two units in Colstrip. Senate Bill 338 is reasonable and prudent. It even allows companies like Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy, which own the units, to submit their own estimates on cost.

Don’t trust me? Well, even a wonky free-market Republican like Travis Kavulla understands the justifications for passing this bill.

When the Colstrip station closes, barring a miracle, the community is going to become a shell of its former self. The power plant’s place in that community makes Malmstrom Air Force Base’s place in Great Falls look small. A plant closure means an instant reduction in property values, a cost shift to the remaining taxpayers in the county, and a lot of stranded assets in the form of local government projects that still have outstanding balances on their bond arrangements…

Up until just a year ago, one of the Colstrip plant owners, Puget Sound Energy, which is the electric utility for the metro Seattle area, was singing its praises, suggesting it was one of its cheapest resources. That ended the day when the Sierra Club and Puget, and also Talen Energy, signed an agreement to close Units 1 and 2 of the facility by mid-2022 instead of facing further litigation over ash ponds near the property. For companies like Puget Sound Energy, that’s all fine. They stand to get all the money they need to close and all the money the need to build a new power plant.

The fact of the matter is that Colstrip, Montana has been in a rough spot for years.  Uncertainty has stalled the local economy and caused indescribable anxiety for the people who live there. Things are about to get worse.

Liberal blogger James Conner of the Flathead Memo makes the point better than I ever could:

It’s wrong to let coal companies strip the wealth from the earth, wrecking the landscape and despoiling land and water, without requiring that they invest in the rehabilitation of the communities and workers’ lives their greed has impacted. Instead of letting Talon, et al, take the money and run, Montana should take money from Talon before running Talon out of the state.

Have we not learned from the environmental, economic, and human disasters that followed the corporate greed and exits of our past? Just talk to someone who lived through the declines in Anaconda or Butte or the Flathead.

Workers did not create this mess. It wasn’t them and their families that decided to cut corners for profits, which inevitably led to the lawsuits that are forcing Unites 1 and 2 to close. These decisions were made by out-of-state executives with huge salaries and little care for the people who work for them.

I have little hope for the far-right wing of the Republican Party. They are unabashed in their support for profit over people. Instead, I’m looking at my own Democratic Party. This will be a defining moment. Will the Democratic Party continue its rightward shift towards corporate America or will it rediscover its populist soul, fight for people over profits, hold corporations accountable, and maybe even start winning elections again?

This legislation is about ensuring the massive corporations that have made huge profits off of our land and our people’s labor don’t just cut and run, leaving families unable to sell their homes, relocate, and transition. The choice should be an easy one.

About the author

Calamity Jan

22 Comments

  • I have corrected the spelling of Talen in my post at Flathead Memo. I prefer that readers send me email flagging my mistakes instead of flagging my errors in [sic] public comments on other blogs.

  • I can get behind SB 338, which would hold the power companies accountable for the decommissioning of existing coal-powered electric generating plants. I cannot get behind HB 585, a bill that would provide loans to power companies in an attempt to prop up these same dirty, aging plants — requested by Jim Keane (D-Butte).

  • As a progressive I wholly disagree with your assessment. This bill requires no cleanup of the extensive contamination at the site (decommissioning is not defined as remediation). It does not require the owners post bonds to make sure the contamination is cleaned up should those owners go bankrupt. It provides no guarantee that workers would receive their pensions should Talen declare bankruptcy. It will send utilities and the clean energy industry running from Montana to any other state that doesn’t punish businesses for closing a out-dated uneconomic business. The folks of Colstrip deserve the town to be cleaned up, pensions to be honored, and new businesses to locate in the area and put the power lines to good use providing energy that markets demand. This bill does none of those things and moves us in the direction of punishing businesses that have invested billions in the state and are ready to move to the new energy economy. The town of Colstrip needs help with transition, and that doesn’t include scaring away new business.

    • This is the exact problem with the Democratic Party. Business interests and “business climate” have become more important than people. This has been happening since the 70s and this is why dems keep losing working people. And this bill does address some of the biggest issues with “transition.” Stop demonizing working people. Help them.

      Your argument is smoke and mirrors aimed st helping big out of state utilities.

      Oh and BTW, Puget Sound paid $50million when they closed a pant in their back yard. Why doesn’t montana get the same?

    • [“You shall not divide the body. You shall make good the body, air and water and land. Therefore Coal Company XYZ, shall fund secure pensions, and reliable remediation of the the area impacted by Coalstrip. Only then can you proceed in Bankruptcy Court.”]
      Anne, or anyone, i sure do not know but do wonder. Anything like the above bracketed imaginary sentences ever happen??
      As I recall, it was then Rep Zinke who acted to defeat the DOI study of just how many dollars of royalty WAS DEVIOUSLY UNDERPAID.
      Therefore I’m wondering. Must have been preliminary estimates as to much coal royalty was deviously underpaid to the USA also Montana.
      If Preet Bharara was Montana Attorney he would have been after the coal oligarchs to pay legally required royalty.
      And if they resisted, he would claw back with talons.
      So that the people of Coalstrip will have a better life.
      So that seed money, for say feasability of a gas/solar power plant, and modeling, and if desired, construction and integration into a power grid would have already happened.
      So that remediation is succesfully accomplished.
      Oh well, if there was a progressive blog in Montana we would not be stuck with the MT House and Senate focusing on a small part of the big picture.
      Anne, damn glad you posted.

    • Anne, it truly saddens me to see MEIC siding with these corporations. Your “business” argument is shallow. It’s something I’d expect to hear from a corporate shill in the GOP.

      • This is a difficult bill for all of us, as I don’t know anyone working on issues around Colstrip that does not believe that the utilities should be responsible for clean up, for providing retraining opportunities, and for providing the community with resources to make an economic transition. However, there is absolutely nothing “shallow” about the the business argument in relation to this particular piece of legislation. The price tag on this bill is huge and the language is vague. Montana has the talent, the resources, and the infrastructure to stay in the energy export business. However, if this legislation passes, anyone moving into Montana to build assets will have to ask themselves the question: what is it going to cost when we eventually shut this down. Now lets put this into practical reality: Puget Sound Energy will need to replace Colstrip’s power. They can do that two ways. One is to build out renewables, particularly wind, in Montana. Why Montana? The wind blows here when they need it and the infrastructure is there. Their other option is to build out gas plants in WA. If this bill is passed, the WA Utility Commission will have to factor this into future decisions to allow rate based recovery on PSE’s investments. When faced with a decision between predictable costs for rate payers or the chance of future generations being pummeled with unexpected costs, which way do you think they are going to go? The choice to me is pretty clear. While this may seem like a “corporate shill”, as you so eloquently put it, Montana needs industries that create jobs. Energy from renewable resources can provide that. You are asking us to prioritize the passage of legislation that does not guarantee cleanup, does not guarantee pensions, and doesn’t create new opportunities in exchange for vague transition funding and payouts on property values. You are trying to turn this into a simplistic argument of “Do you support transition assistance or not?” Its not that simple. What does this bill do for 20 year olds who want to stay in Montana and need opportunities to work? What does it do for the skilled workforce to provide new opportunities to work? Real transition is setting up an environment in which people can retrain AND can have opportunity to use those skills to make a living.

        • Mike, I do not accept the dichotomy you are positing: “Puget Sound Energy will need to replace Colstrip’s power. They can do that two ways. One is to build out renewables, particularly wind, in Montana. Why Montana? The wind blows here when they need it and the infrastructure is there. Their other option is to build out gas plants in WA.”

          The wind blow here when it blows, which sometimes is when it’s needed. The same is true of the wind in Washington, where there are many fine wind farms and wind farm sites east of the Cascades. Puget Sound Energy can build wind farms in Washington, closer to the end user, and suffer less line loss, as well as build natural gas fired plants in WA.

          PSE has many good options close to home. I can’t think of a single good reason why PSE should import even a microwatt hour of electricity from Montana. In my judgement, electricity should be generated close to the end user, not a thousand miles away. I consider the vision of Montana as the land of a million wind turbines and the generator of the nation’s electricity as much a chimera as the fable of clean coal.

          As for SB-338, it may not be perfect, but at least it tries to mitigate the impacts on the communities the shutdown of Units 1 and 2 will have. Twenty-year-olds have opportunities that 55-year-old coal miners with high school educations do not have. Kicking aging and displaced miners to the side of the road to make way for young people to chase jobs that may never exist is not a policy that a state with a heart should embrace. The bill can be amended and improved. How would you and Anne improve it? Which bills would, or do, you support instead?

    • I’m confused, Anne. You’re saying that this bill doesn’t hold industry accountable for remediation or pensions or posting bonds but it will chase other industries away, clean or otherwise, because it is too onerous?

      I agree, Colstrip needs help with transition. But what sort of a bill would you like to see that would achieve accountability and still encourage industry to locate here?

      • It’s kind of ironic that the organization (MEIC, headed by Anne Hedges) that sued the utilities into closing down Units 1 and 2 is suddenly worried about frightening away business.

        • Past and present MT PSC are the gatekeepers.

          Here’s a MEIC link to Clean Energy legislation in MT.

          http://meic.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/DTEMarch2017POZ.pdf

          Here’s a push back at what appears to be a push away of Anne Hedges.
          Who commented with an asessment.
          Then was asked to come back with improvements and Bills.
          To me, there were attempts to exclude the commenter.

          Looks like it worked, now the commenter
          is challenged to ?defend, explain, develop, subjects of the assortment of parties besides MEIC involved in the suit, and the findings of the Court and the arguments. NOT MEIC but the Court voted to close. IS LAW and order not important???

          At ground level where I live it’s the mercury in our fish, while the coal oligarchs are subsidized by devious rip off royalty schemes that tips the macro argument of retiring I and II BUT ONLY IF BONDED MONEY IS IN PLACE TO RESTORE COMMUNITY ALSO TO REMEDIATE ENVIRONMENTS.

          Sorry for the caps, but imo we all have been negligent about working for progress in Rosebud County.
          And we are still indulgent in picking on easy targets. Like hyperbolic sentences in the Hedges Comment.

          Trying to be inclusive, iso helpful comment about Kelly McCarthy’s unique double way to make progress in Rosebud County.
          OR especially ways and means that make sense from young to old.
          What else? Ask Elon Musk to come and visit Rosebud and offer his assessment!

    • Let’s help Colstrip become ‘Wind and Solar ‘strip’ and move into the 21st Century Energy arena, not backwards!

  • I’m not sure of the purpose of this post – the Dems hate the mine and power plants at Colstrip, and couldn’t care less about all the workers, because they are in bed with the environmentalists instead.

    That’s it. 1 & 2 are planning to close up BECAUSE of Democrats.

    • That’s not true. Colstrip 1&2 are closing because the utilities cut corners and MEIC sued. Now the workers are the only one’s set up to lose.

  • Yes. It would be so good to see something good and lasting come from resource extraction in Montana. I just finished reading 56 Counties and it seems the entire history of Montana is one long repetition of exploitation leaving behind gutted communities.

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