Montana Energy Quarterly: Union workers worry as EPA prepares to regulate carbon emissions

2014-06-01T00:00:00Z Montana Energy Quarterly: Union workers worry as EPA prepares to regulate carbon emissionsBy TOM HOWARD Billings Business The Billings Gazette
June 01, 2014 12:00 am  • 

The J.E. Corette coal-fired power plant is back in operation with the completion of repairs to fix a burst steam tube that forced a plant shutdown last February.

“We had great cooperation from employees, contractors, the Department of Environmental Quality and OSHA,” said David Hoffman, a spokesman for PPL Montana, the plant’s operator.

The plant was shut down on Feb. 3 when a steam pipe on top of the plant’s boiler failed. The leak scattered asbestos insulation, necessitating environmental remediation.

Hoffman declined to say what date the plant went back into operation.

However, the recent repairs probably won’t alter PPL Montana’s plans to mothball the power plant, which is more than 40 years old, by next spring, he said.

The company announced in 2012 that it would shut down the 154-megawatt Corette plant in 2015 rather than invest in $10 million worth of pollution control equipment to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions and meet federal air quality standards for visibility. The plant’s closure was announced two years ago in the midst of close elections for the U.S. Senate and the Montana governorship. The unsuccessful Republican candidates in those races — former Rep. Denny Rehberg in the Senate race and Rick Hill in the race for governor — blamed Democrats for the pending loss of coal-related jobs.

One year ago, PPL Montana agreed to pay a $250,000 penalty as part of an agreement with the DEQ to comply with opacity regulations relating to sulfur dioxide emissions from Corette. Sulfur dioxide emissions reduce visibility.

Mothballing Corette will lead to the loss of about 35 jobs in the Billings market. Some employees may choose to retire, others will likely be offered an opportunity to transfer elsewhere in the company, Hoffman said.

For Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, the coming shutdown of the Corette plant is part of a long-term concern that new and stricter environmental regulations could cripple Montana’s coal industry and threaten thousands of well-paying jobs held by union boilermakers, electricians, miners, railroad workers and other blue-collar workers who earn their living in the coal industry.

Each year the Montana coal industry generates $65 million in state taxes, and supports thousands of middle-class jobs, he said.

Last June President Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to issue regulations designed to limit heat-tripping carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

The proposed rules are expected to be released in June, with final rules to be issued a year later.

The coal industry has already lined up to battle the proposed carbon regulation.

“The proposed rule is an example of regulation at its worst in that it attempts to direct market forces with only the vague hope of being able to deliver real benefits,” said a statement from the Electricity Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of energy companies that refers to the carbon rules as a “train wreck.”

The proposal calls for each state, with assistance from EPA, to develop “standards of performance” for existing stationary sources and an implementation plan to achieve those standards.

Organized labor plans to speak out as the rules are developed, Ekblad said.

He said craft unions whose members work in the coal industry also plan to reach out to other labor organizations.

“We’re working to meet with representatives of the public-sector unions. Our goal is to educate their members on coal’s contributions,” he said.

The Montana AFL-CIO has issued a position paper that supports a wide variety of energy industries.

“Mining coal and refining oil provide labor intensive, highly-skilled jobs that support many thousands of Montana working families at a much higher rate than other forms of energy development,” the labor coalition said.

Ekblad said the AFL-CIO also supports the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the Canadian oil sands to refineries in the southeast, crossing Montana. In addition, the Montana AFL-CIO also supports transporting oil by rail, because train crews are unionized, he said.

Union workers who work in energy often find themselves at odds with environmentalists.

In an effort to find common ground on where energy and environmental issues intersect, the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers formed the Blue Green Alliance in 2006.

Since then the effort has grown to include four environmental organizations, 10 labor unions and has some 15 million members, said David McGonagle, director of engagement for the alliance.

“We’re dedicated to expanding the number of family-sustaining, quality jobs in the green economy, and we work around those issues,” McGonagle said.

McGonagle met recently in Billings with Ekblad and other labor leaders.

The purpose of the Billings session and others like it is to share information on the proposed EPA rules, and how the process might work, he said.

“There’s not a lot of information on how the process and timeline works,” McGonagle said.

One key to the new rules is that Montana and other states will be have options on how the new rules could be attained and enforced, much like the state coordinates enforcement for existing pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and particulates, McGonagle said.

He said the information was well received by the Billings group.

After the EPA’s proposed rules are issued, “It will be a great time for stakeholders to engage what is the best plan for each state, and how they want to meet the rules in Montana and do it in a way that lessens economic disruption,” he said..

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