Montanans have a message for the many in Washington, including Gov. Jay Inslee, who want state utilities to pull the plug on coal power:
Four Big Sky legislators were in Spokane Wednesday doing their best to discourage proposals that could result in the closure of two generating plants at Colstrip, where they burn coal from adjacent mines.
Hundreds of some of the best-paying jobs in Montana are at-risk, as is millions in tax revenue. In a state with a history of abuse by out-of-state mine, railroad and timber owners, the potential for yet another blow from Washington’s utilities has their hair on fire.
The excitement started earlier this year, when the Washington Legislature took up bills that anticipated the closure of Colstrip Units 1 and 2, and how best to minimize the associated costs on utility ratepayers, primarily those of Puget Sound Electric.
The two plants were built in the 1970s, and are near the end of their operating life. New air pollution control regulations could delay closure, but Washington regulators may not allow PSE to pass on the costs — an estimated $460 million — if cheaper energy is available.
Avista Utilities owns 15 percent of the newer Units 3 and 4, which would not be directly affected by the legislation.
The bills did not pass, partly because of their complexity, and partly because they raised concerns about state participation in a possible bond issue.
But Montanans took notice.
Gov. Steve Bullock wrote to Inslee, the head of the Montana utility commission wrote to Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, and the Montana state senator representing the Colstrip area drafted a bill that would require companies that shut down coal plants to pay a fee twice their taxable valuation for the next 10 years.
While his concerns are understandable, the idea that owners of any worn out asset can be penalized for making an inevitable business decision is bizarre.
But when the Washington legislation died, the Montana bill was withdrawn.
That will not be the end of it, and avoiding another confrontation was one of the reasons for Wednesday’s meeting. One outcome was an agreement that Montana representatives would have the chance to testify on bills that would affect Colstrip. Washington lawmakers will have the same prerogative in Helena.
Valuable as those exchanges may be, at the core is a fundamental disagreement over the future of coal. Inslee and environmentalists say it has none. Washington’s only coal-fired generating station, at Centralia, is scheduled to close within the decade. So, too, is Boardman, Oregon’s only coal plant.
Although many Montanans are as disturbed as anyone else in the Northwest by the greenhouse gases emitted at Colstrip, dependence on coal for jobs and revenues has a powerful hold in the state.
For the region’s utilities, coal remains a valued, low-cost energy source not readily replaced by natural gas or renewables. Washington regulators are working with them to find the best way transition to those other resources at the least possible cost.
The region has been chewing on these issues for decades now, and there will be no “whoa.”
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