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Buzz around Colstrip is fueled by misinformation

by DUANE ANKNEY and TOM MCGILLVRAY
| April 20, 2021 7:00 AM

Every session we have bills that create new potential for Colstrip, those bills are constantly surrounded by media misinformation that is meant to confuse and mislead lawmakers and the public. This session is no different, and the current bill in question is state Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick’s Senate Bill 379.

Fitzpatrick’s bill creates a pathway for a Montana utility, like NorthWestern, to acquire or lease an additional interest in a coal fired generating unit such as those at Colstrip. Predictably, anti-coal groups are saying SB 379 takes oversight away from the Public Service Commission (PSC). Unfortunately, misinformation such as this comes from not reading the bill. Section one of the bill states that the PSC has the authority to determine whether a purchase of this nature is in the public interest or not. That means the PSC determines if it’s a fair price for ratepayers and good for the long-term future of the Montana energy supply.

Then there is the unfounded claim that SB 379 commits customers to “1.8 billion in additional costs.” This claim comes from the ridiculous scenario where one utility would purchase the entire Colstrip power plant instead of an additional share like the current ownership interests reflect. The bill simply states that the Public Service Commission’s review of a Colstrip purchase must reflect the asset’s true value, and that the value must be a good investment before the PSC approves it.

Another fictitious narrative claims that NorthWestern could close the plant at any time, leaving ratepayers with stranded costs. This is also false. Section 2 of the bill clearly states that an electric utility granted cost recovery and a rate of return “shall continue to operate the generating unit until the commission issues an order finding that the closure of the unit is in the public’s best interest.”

It seems none writing about the bill communicate what the bill says. Rather, they spin narratives that fit their worldview of how energy should be produced. That view does not include reliable carbon-based power that keeps your home warm and your business running at 30 below.

It is clear that the staff at the PSC has sided up with the environmentalists. They just want to close Colstrip. A recent memo written by the PSC staff stated that SB 379 guarantees profits for NorthWest Energy, but leave the cost responsibility on the ratepayers. But the PSC will have the final say on the rates. Power produced at Colstrip is still the lowest cost power that is available. Much lower than the cost of building out of an $800 million gas plant.

Senate Bill 379 is very clear on the environmental remediation. The original owners will maintain their share of the responsibilities even after the sale of a portion of the unit would be negotiated. Former owners will retain their share of cleanup costs, not Montana.

Regardless of if Colstrip survives or not, Montana will need an increasing source of reliable power. This new generation will not be free. If Northwestern purchases an additional share of Colstrip, the PSC will oversee this. If NWE invests in additional gas generation, this will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Either way, NorthWestern, a regulated utility, will be granted a return in the rate base.

We think coal is the most reliable, and predictable source of power we could have. The wind does not blow when its 30 below. Think about that.

We urge the media and readers alike to read the bill and look at the facts instead of relying on hearsay and inflammatory scare tactics by groups that want to see their environmental worldview implemented, and this bill — and Colstrip itself — fail and fade away.

Ankey is Republican state senator representing Colstrip. McGillvray is a Republican state senator representing Billings.