Billings Gazette: Trump’s repeal of Clean Power Plan gets mixed Montana reception

Even before President Donald Trump declared the Clean Power Plan dead, the autopsy in Montana was underway.

Coal advocates hailed the repeal as the break coal needs to rebound from several years of bad economic news. Groups concerned about climate change said, unfortunately, the repeal would undo little. Challenged in court by 24 states, including Montana, the plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions was never put to use.

The Clean Power Plan, crafted under former President Barack Obama, called on states to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources by 2030. Those emissions are said by the majority of experts to contribute to the trapping of the sun’s heat within the earth’s environment, which warms the planet causing adverse climate changes.

Montana’s required cuts to carbon dioxide emissions were some of the deepest in the country under the plan. Republicans branded Obama’s climate change measures a “war on coal.” The Clean Power Plan was considered the former president’s atom bomb, a way to shutter coal-fired power plants.

“I have confidence that this is a first step in trashing President Obama’s war on coal and the good-paying jobs it supports. Coal keeps the lights on,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Two market-based problems have wounded coal energy and coal mining. Cheap natural gas has replaced coal as the nation’s No. 1 source for electricity production, and a global oversupply of coal has hurt U.S. mines.

Daines told reporters Tuesday that the United States would become a leader in the coal economy as power plants built mostly in developing nations, like India and China, fired up to meet a growing demand for electricity. The consequences of Trump’s repeal would be realized over decades as the United States invests in clean coal technology.

“This sets the stage, not just for the next year, not just for three years, but for 30 years from now,” Daines said.

Others argued that killing the Clean Power Plan cuts Montana’s energy future adrift. The repeal won’t help the state as it loses coal-related jobs and fails to address carbon dioxide pollution.

“Pulling the plug on the Clean Power Plan doesn’t fully address the real challenges of Montana families who rely on the coal industry,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “I hope the administration will now work with Montanans to create good-paying energy jobs while protecting clean air and clean water.”

The Clean Power Plan not only called for states to cut the cord on coal-fired power plants with excessive carbon dioxide emissions, but also encouraged development of cleaner power sources.

Without the newly eliminated plan, there’s less incentive for states to plan their energy future, said Mike Scott, of the Sierra Club’s Montana chapter.

“From the perspective of planning, this is a step backward because the CPP actually encouraged us to sit down and actually look at what our energy would be in the future,” Scott said.

For 40 years Montana has been an electricity exporter, and coal-fired energy from Colstrip has been the majority contributor to those exports. Colstrip is now winding down. By 2022, if not sooner, the two oldest units of Colstrip’s four-unit power complex will be shuttered to settle an emissions violations lawsuit brought against owners Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy by the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Colstrip’s two younger units, built in the 1980s, will face pressure to close within 20 years as Pacific Northwest utilities with stakes in the power plant comply with state law to quit coal by the mid-2030s.

The Clean Power Plan would have forced a discussion about Montana’s post coal-power era, said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

“They’re saying ‘the war on coal. We’re finally rolling back the war on coal,’” Hedges said. “The Clean Power Plan was a tool to get ready for the energy transition that is already happening. And now we don’t even have a plan so we can be ready for the transition.”

Montana never embraced the Clean Power Plan. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock accused the Obama administration of “moving the goalposts” when it prescribed greenhouse gas cuts for Montana that were twice as deep as the state anticipated.

Bullock set the federal prescription as a 47 percent cut in greenhouse gases. Hedges argued the cut was closer to 32 percent.

In January 2016, the governor appointed a citizen advisory board to come up with a plan for complying with CPP, but a few weeks later, a federal court granted a stay to Montana and 23 states suing the EPA over the emissions plan. The CPP committee was quickly disbanded.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who decided Montana should join the lawsuit, said at the time that the EPA is overstepping its authority by making new law with the CPP.

Just 31 days from the start of the U.S. House special election, Montana’s Republican and Democratic congressional candidates are split on whether the Clean Power Plan repeal was good for the state.

“This is a decisive victory as we continue to fight the war on coal. I applaud President Trump’s decision to repeal the EPA’s job-killing energy regulations because it protects Montana jobs and gives Colstrip a fighting chance to keep the lights on,” Republican Greg Gianforte said. “I will always be on Montana’s side fighting back against these excessive regulations that would shut down our coal industry and kill thousands of good-paying Montana jobs.”

Gianforte had railed against the CPP as a jobs killer during the 2016 race for governor, which he lost to incumbent Bullock.

Quist echoed concerns that Montana needed a plant to address the state’s energy economy and climate change.

“Montana is home to every kind of energy source, and we should be working on a Montana-made energy plan to create jobs here at home,” Quist said. “As Montana’s next congressman, I will work to create good-paying Montana jobs, while making sure that we do everything we can to turn the tide on climate change, which affects Montana farmers and ranchers and our outdoor industry.”

Coal leases

Tucked away in Tuesday’s repeal was also the end of a ban on new coal leases on federal public lands.

Leasing was suspended in January 2016 by the Department of Interior, which contended the public wasn’t getting a fair royalty price for its coal. The department estimated there’s a 20-year coal supply available without new leases, enough to keep mines from being coal-starved while the federal government establishes a more equitable royalty rate.

Montana’s U.S. senators split on the royalty debate last year when the moratorium started and stayed divided Tuesday.

Daines welcomed the moratorium’s end as a blow to “the war on coal.” Tester said work was needed to assure Montana and the nation were getting a fair price from federal coal sales.

“I’m concerned this decision doesn’t ensure that Montana taxpayers are getting a fair return on all of our resources and that energy companies won’t have the certainty they need to create jobs and stay competitive in the free market,” Tester said.

Losses from undervalued federal coal had cost the public at least $1 billion a year for 30 years, said Dan Bucks, a former Montana Department of Revenue director, and advocated for increasing public compensation for mined coal. By not pursuing a fair return on coal sales, Trump is violating fair value federal laws, Bucks said.

“The law requires that federal coal be sold for market value and the old leasing and royalty system fails that standard,” Bucks said. “For three decades it was $30 billion lost. It was real money, half of which goes to Montana, who shares it with the coal communities.”

Coal companies argued that federal coal prices are fair and that the royalty issue was a scheme crafted by environmentalists to “keep coal in the ground,” a slogan used by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Western groups opposed to coal mining.

“Federal coal delivers over $1 billion a year in royalty payments alone,” said Rick Curtsinger of Cloud Peak Energy. And Powder River Basin coal, “the vast and overwhelming majority of coal mined on federal land, delivers an average of 40-percent of the selling price per ton in taxes, fees, and royalties to local and state and federal governments.

“That 40-percent makes PRB coal among the highest taxed commodities in the world,” Curtsinger said. “Rescinding the order will end the witch hunt begun by Secretary (Sally) Jewell, rebuke the fake economics used to justify it, and allow coal producers to pursue the many maintenance tract leases that have been left in limbo over the past year. Cloud Peak Energy has such leases pending at all three of its mines in the Powder River Basin, including the Spring Creek Mine in Montana, and welcomes the action to rescind the Order.”