Blowing Smoke on the Colstrip Coal Plant

The increasingly desperate efforts by politicians to “save” Colstrip’s antiquated and enormously polluting coal-fired power plants is reaching the stage that’s leaving facts, economics and the “free market” far behind. Unfortunately, Montana’s congressional Republicans, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, are among those blowing the most smoke about Colstrip, its climate impacts, and its future instead of facing the reality that coal power has been eclipsed in every way by solar, wind, hydro and cheap natural gas. Toss in a new ruling in favor of solar power issued by the district court last week and it’s time to bring the Colstrip debacle to a close.

Last week Gianforte attacked Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee personally for Colstrip’s many problems, saying there “are devastating impacts of your policy on Montana and our communities.” But of course Inslee is not personally responsible for the Washington legislature’s decision to reduce reliance on coal-fired power. Inslee is, however, a Democratic candidate for president who is running on a strong platform of addressing climate change which is having very real impacts on his home state, the nation and the planet.

It’s worth remembering that Gianforte only moved to Montana from New Jersey in 1995 and has no memory of what Montana was like before Colstrip — nor is he aware of how Colstrip was forced on Montanans by the utility industry claiming they were building “the boiler room for the nation.”

The simple truth is that Montana was just fine before Colstrip. We had no blackouts, no power failures, and the series of hydroelectric dams paid for by consumers provided Montanans with the cheapest power in the region. We weren’t “freezing in the dark” as the Colstrip boosters would have us believe.

The Colstrip units were intended to produce export power, far in excess of the needs of Montanans, and it did just that very profitably for the expected life-span of the project. And now that those to whom the power is exported have decided to change power sources from dirty to clean, the “free market” — so often espoused by political ideologues like Gianforte and Daines — has indeed moved on. Like buggy whips, Colstrip’s day has come and gone.

While Gianforte was attacking Inslee, Daines was pressing Rick Perry, Trump’s energy secretary, for hundreds of millions in federal funds to pay for carbon capture technology — thus passing the costs of the outmoded coal plants on to all American taxpayers. Daines claimed “Colstrip’s mostly continuous ‘base-load’ power was crucial to all things Montana” — including elk hunting. Perry, equally hyperbolic, said coal power was not cheap, “but you never want to have that phone call that comes in and says, we have people that are losing their lives in part of the state because we weren’t willing to pay for diversity to make sure that we had an all-of-the-above energy strategy.”

But like a beacon light in the dark, while our Republican congressmen were blowing smoke in D.C., Lake County District Judge James A. Manley ruled in favor of developing clean energy, writing Montana’s Public Service Commission “arbitrarily cut rate and contract lengths by about half and effectively made it economically impossible for solar and wind facilities.” And contrary to the baloney about Colstrip’s necessity, Manley said evidence demonstrated that solar qualifying facilities would allow it to avoid costs in high-demand hours.

Colstrip continues to imperil the state and planet with the smoke from the outmoded coal plants. But there’s no need for our Republican congressional delegation to blow more smoke with their phony threats and alternative facts.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.