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Proposal Would Shift Power Plant from Private to Public

Lawmaker says he just wants to make sure it stays open and running.

Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP, File

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A Billings legislator's proposal that Montana buy Colstrip power plant drew criticism from business and environmental groups alike at a Monday hearing in Helena.

Business lobbyists cautioned against state government buying private companies, while environmentalists warned against shifting hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs to taxpayers.

South Billings Republican Rep. Rod Garcia said he just wanted to save Colstrip, the Billings Gazette reported . 

"My intention is just keep this open, running, keeping the economy strong in Montana. That's it," Garcia told the House Federal Regulations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

The legislation itself, House Bill 203, didn't specifically identify Colstrip power plant, though Garcia told the committee saving Colstrip was his intent. Rather, the legislation directs the state of Montana to raise up to $500 million in revenue bonds so it can buy a coal-fired power plant.

A newly created government commission to buy and manage the plant are also in the plan.

The four-unit power plant in Colstrip, the second largest coal-burner in the West, is under duress. Age, consumer concerns about climate change, and competition from natural gas and renewable energy are working against it.

Four of the power plant's six utility owners are poised to move away from coal power within 8 to 10 years. In Washington State, where 1.8 million customers draw Colstrip power, the Legislature and governor are considering a ban on coal power by 2025. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee argues that coal power is damaging the climate. A 2020 presidential candidate, Inslee wants to cut the cord.

The power plant's two oldest units will shutter in four years or less to settle a clean air lawsuit.

Bob Gilbert, a lobbyist for the town of Colstrip and Rosebud County, said the bill would save the community. He laid out a scenario in which the state could buy a coal-fired power plant to save it from closure and then sell it to a private power company. Garcia's bill puts state government in position to buy a power plant quickly if necessary, but it doesn't force the state the buy unnecessarily, Gilbert said.

"This is a tool in the tool box because it is permissive, that in the event of the need to purchase this plant and perhaps pass it on, the Legislature won't have to meet in special session. It can be done by the state with the sidelines that are in it," Gilbert said.

But most of the people testifying at the hearing, if they weren't directly tied to Colstrip, were in opposition, including the Montana Chamber of Commerce, which just year commissioned an economic report predicting harmful economic consequences if Colstrip power plant closed entirely.

"We oppose HB 203 because, while well intentioned, it wouldn't work. And going down that path could be catastrophic for Montana taxpayers, "said Cary Hegreberg, Montana Chamber president.

Hegreberg also said the government shouldn't be replacing private industry, a comment reiterated by Bob Story, of the Montana Taxpayers Association.

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