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Gov. Bullock, AG Fox at Colstrip meeting

Governor Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox take questions as Colstrip residents, officials and members of the Colstrip Community Impact Advisory Group meet in the City Council Chambers to talk about the Puget Sound Energy settlement agreement and the town's post-power-plant future.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

With $10 million on the table to the get the job done, Colstrip began laying plans Monday for life after power-plant shareholder Puget Sound Energy cuts ties to coal.

State and local officials, led by Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox, gathered just a few blocks away from Colstrip Power Plant to discuss transitioning the community to a future without Puget Sound Energy. The Washington utility holds significant shares of the four-unit coal-fired generating station and will begin shutting units down in five years or less.

Puget plans to shutter Colstrip’s two oldest units no later than 2022. The company splits ownership of Units 1 and 2 equally with Talen Energy. The two companies agreed to close the units to settle a clean air lawsuit. Additionally, Puget has an agreement with Washington state regulators to be financially ready by December 2027, to decommission Colstrip’s remaining units.

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Colstrip cooling tower

Steam rises from cooling towers as three of the four power plants at Colstrip operate on January 29. 

The company has pledged $10 million “to address the transitioning of PSE’s interest in the community.” That money is only available to Colstrip if state and local officials first craft a transition plan. There's an additional $2 million available now for job retraining, with another $2.6 million possible later.

“My aim, and our aim, on the advisory group is to make sure the community is in charge of its own future,” said Bullock, a Democrat. “Nobody should be telling what, necessarily, the solution is, but ought to be helping frame, or be part of, that solution.”

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Colstrip mayor John Williams

Colstrip mayor John Williams opens a Monday meeting in the City Council Chambers for the town's residents, officials and members of the Colstrip Community Impact Advisory Group to talk about the $10 million Puget Sound Energy settlement agreement and other matters related to the impending closure of the town's power plant.

Roughly 100 people packed into City Hall to listen to the Colstrip Community Impact Advisory Group plot its first steps for producing a plan by the end of the year. The committee identified several emerging problems, including how the closure of Units 1 and 2 is expected to rip a hole in the local tax base. Power plant property taxes have paid the bulk of the government expenses, not only for the town of 2,500, but also Rosebud County and Colstrip School District.

Colstrip schools Superintendent Bob Lewandowski told the group without taxes from Units 1 and 2, the community would have to shoulder the burden for school district costs.

Colstrip Mayor John Williams, an advisory group member, said the community would have to get work on shoring up its water source in the absence of the oldest units. Colstrip gets its water from the Yellowstone River by way of the 30 miles of pipe and pumps. The power plant draws the water to Colstrip for its own use. The city piggybacks on the delivery.

If Units 1 and 2 go away, the community’s water costs are certain to increase, officials said. But there’s also a major water right assigned to the units, which the city indicated it might want to possess.

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Standing room only at Colstrip meeting

Colstrip residents fill the City Council Chamber on Monday for a discussion of the town's future as yearslong plans for the closure of the power plant move forward.

Williams framed the day's subject as transitioning from the closure of Units 1 and 2. He used his introductory remarks to thank Colstrip power plant workers for creating energy that helped power the Pacific Northwest, including the homes of the Puget Sound’s 1.3 million metered customers. In addition to Puget, Avista Corp of Spokane, Portland General Electric, Pacificorp and NorthWestern Energy each draw some of their power from Colstrip.

The power plant community now finds itself at odds with the communities it served, particularly in Oregon and Washington State, where concern about climate change has prompted Colstrip owners to accelerate plans to stop using coal power. Oregon utilities are obligated to stop serving up coal power in the next 15 years. In Washington, legislators are working on plans for a carbon pollution tax, which would drive up the price of Montana coal power.

“What you have done and what you have accomplished has allowed extraordinary, good things to occur across the state and across the Pacific Northwest,” Williams said. “And I have been involved with it and I am very fortunate to be involved with it and I thank you for that opportunity,” Williams said.

The advisory group will meet again in Colstrip on Wednesday, March 7.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.