Billing Gazette: With Clean Power rules looming, Daines touts Colstrip benefits at Billings forum

Losing part of Colstrip’s 40-year-old power plant would devastate Montana’s economy through possible job losses and higher power bills, state elected officials and industry backers said Monday in Billings.

They urged the business-friendly audience to speak out against federal regulations they say would hurt the coal industry.

“President Obama stopped the Keystone pipeline. Next on his to-do list is to kill the coal industry,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said at the forum sponsored by Big Sky Economic Development.

About 180 people attended the gathering at Crowne Plaza in downtown Billings. Included in the audience were state lawmakers, county commissioners and tribal leaders.

The main point of discussion was the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, released last fall. The agency is aiming to cut carbon emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The keynote speaker was Republican Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who said regulators must adhere to “rule of law” above politics in forming the rules.

Fox is one of 27 attorneys general nationwide who have signed on to a lawsuit aimed at overturning the Clean Power Plan. The group has asked a federal judge for an injunction to delay the plan.

Montana received in a year about $103 million in coal taxes. The state also has about $1 billion in its coal severance tax fund.In Montana, the carbon emission cuts amount to about 47 percent, according to the federal plan, and Colstrip, which employs about 350 workers at the plant, is the biggest contributor. This month, Gov. Steve Bullock announced in Colstrip a panel to help craft guidelines to meet a September deadline.

The Colstrip plant has six owners: NorthWestern Energy, Talen Energy, Portland General Electric, Puget Sound Energy, Avista Corp. and PacifiCorp. The latter four market power in Washington and Oregon, where legislators are proposing new laws this year to cut cross-state purchases of coal power.

State Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, said he expects a tough push-and-pull between Montana lawmakers and their counterparts on the West Coast. Legislative sessions in Oregon and Washington are annual and are already underway.

“It will be a dogfight, but that’s all right. As long as we’re the big dog,” said Ankney, a member of Bullock’s clean-power council.

In addition to power-plant regulations, the Obama administration announced last week it was suspending new coal leases on federal land. Officials with the U.S. Department of Interior said they needed time to evaluate whether mining companies are paying a fair amount for extracting publicly owned coal on federal lands.

During a panel discussion, Jason Small, a union boilermaker and Northern Cheyenne tribal member, said the union has about 100 jobs at Colstrip 1 and 2, and losing them could kill the union.

“I don’t believe our local would survive. … There’s a huge effect on the boilermakers,” said Small, who was Daines’s guest at last week’s State of the Union speech.