Playing Politics With Coal Plants

The Anaconda Smelter was precipitously shut down at noon on “Black Monday,” Sept. 29, 1980. Suddenly, 1,200 smelter workers were without jobs.

Just that morning Mel Stokke, the general manager of the smelter, had assured workers that the smelter would continue operating into the foreseeable future. But then the call came in from ARCO’s headquarters telling Stokke to immediately cease operations and, as Stokke’s son Chuck recalled 30 years later: “Quite frankly, he had no idea the closure was coming. A lot of people weren’t believers until they decided to just demolish the whole thing.”

Almost 40 years later, the same “it won’t close” delusion exists at the Colstrip power plant — and it’s being played for political election-year gain by none other than Montana’s Republican senator, Steve Daines.

An article by Tom Lutey late last week described the efforts by Daines to postpone Colstrip’s inevitable demise. NorthWestern Energy tried but failed to pass hundreds of millions of dollars in costs for the outmoded coal-fired power plants on to Montana’s utility consumers in the recent legislative session, so Daines now turns to the nation’s taxpayers for bailout funds through the dubious, extremely expensive and inefficient process known as “carbon capture and sequestration.”

To accomplish his quixotic quest, Daines has co-sponsored a bill with the Orwellian title of the Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology Act. The measure would direct the Department of Energy to dump taxpayer money into retrofitting the power plants to capture their massive output of carbon dioxide and then pipe it to oil wells in southeast Montana, inject it underground at high pressures and force more oil out of the strata.

It would be one thing had Daines come up with this idea and offered it to the world as a new technology. But that’s simply not the case. Going back decades before Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s over-the-top “coal cowboy” promotion, the technology has not only been around, but has proven to be extremely expensive with very limited application, especially at industrial scale. In fact, it was Governor Bullock — who is now running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president — who requested the DOE studies in his own politically motivated attempts to “save” Colstrip. So, in short, it’s a very bipartisan pipe dream, if you’ll excuse the pun.

But here’s the rub with Daines’ proposal — not only is it unlikely to work, but the owners of the Colstrip plants aren’t interested in investing even more in trying to keep the old plants running. As Lutey reported, the director of thermal resources for Puget Sound Energy said “it wasn’t a good investment of customer money given the short period of time the units would remain useful.”

Indeed, Colstrip’s coal-fired power is now more expensive than wind, solar or natural gas and would not delay the 2025 date at which Puget Sound, PacifiCorp and Avista would be required by law to cease delivering coal-fired power to their customers in Washington. As Avista’s spokeswoman told Lutey: “I can say that carbon capture and sequestration would not impact the 2025 coal requirement… we cannot serve our Washington customers with coal, regardless of carbon mitigation.”

Atmospheric carbon dioxide just set a new record at 415 ppm — a level that hasn’t been in Earth’s atmosphere for 3 million years! It’s far past time for our politicians to quit trolling for votes with phony and very expensive subsidies to keep coal plants running. Like the Anaconda smelter, the end of the line has come for Colstrip — and the sooner we acknowledge that reality, the better for all.


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