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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington, Montana officials discuss future of Colstrip plant

Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press

Montana officials urged their Washington counterparts to tread carefully when making decisions about the future of Montana’s Colstrip Generating Station, a major electrical producer and employer.

At a work session in Spokane on Wednesday, government officials and utility representatives from both states discussed efforts to wean Washington from the coal-powered Colstrip plants.

The meeting of the Washington Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee was called by state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who is trying to protect his state’s consumers in the event of a forced closure of two older Colstrip generating units. The Colstrip plants are located east of Billings, but the two older units are owned by utilities based in Washington and Oregon.

“Obviously we got the attention of people in Montana,” Ericksen said as 16 people sat around a conference table in the Davenport Hotel.

Montana lawmakers urged their counterparts in Washington to consider the impacts on the hundreds of people who would lose their jobs if the two older Colstrip units were suddenly closed.

“When we lose 300 to 400 living-wage jobs, you don’t go out the next day and find new ones,” said Republican state Sen. Duane Ankney, who represents the remote Colstrip region in the Montana Legislature.

The meeting comes against the backdrop of efforts to cut Washington utilities’ reliance on coal-fired power sources.

The committee is considering legal and financial strategies that would allow Washington-based Puget Sound Energy – which owns 50 percent of Colstrip Units 1 and 2 – to acquire full ownership and shutter those aging units while minimizing increases in electric bills to its customers.

Puget Sound Energy, which serves 1.1 million customers, gets 20 percent of its power from Colstrip. Avista Corp., based in Spokane, and PacificCorp, based in Portland, own smaller shares of the plant.

The 2,100-megawatt Colstrip station, which includes a total of four generating units, is the second-largest coal-fired power plant in the West. Officials for Puget Sound Energy told the Senate committee in June that new federal mandates could require the installation of $460 million in emissions-control devices. Washington state utility regulators might forbid the spending, which would force a shutdown.

Wednesday’s meeting was intended to explore ways to reduce impacts on the economies of both states, Ericksen said.

“This will be a billion-dollar decision you make in Washington,” warned Montana state Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte.

The two states must not get into a situation of “retaliation legislation” over Colstrip, said Montana state Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek.

Montana officials noted that cheap electricity from their state is responsible for a lot of Washington’s economic prosperity.

Among the issues raised were the impacts to agriculture of the loss of cheap power to run irrigation systems, and whether the extensive system of transmission lines between the states can be maintained if less power is coming out of Colstrip.

“The Colstrip plant will not run forever,” said Steve Secrist, a vice president of Puget Sound Energy, and its closure must be planned.

The town of Colstrip has grown up around the plant and has about 2,000 residents who enjoy excellent parks and schools, said Gordon Criswell, director of environmental complaint for Talen Montana, which operates the plant.

“It’s among the cleanest coal plants in America,” he said.

But it still produces about 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. That has made it a target for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who wants the state’s utilities to stop importing coal-fired electricity, and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which is trying to shut down coal plants nationwide.

Jace Bylenga of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign criticized the meeting.

“This meeting is a one-sided view, limited to what coal supporters want to hear,” he said. “All this sound and fury could be put to better use developing a retirement plan for Colstrip coal plant.”