Matt Rosendale

Matt Rosendale, the Montana state auditor, is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

If Matt Rosendale has anything to say about, Montana’s U.S. Senate race will run through Colstrip.

The Republican state auditor and recently announced Senate candidate made the beleaguered power plant town a first stop of this campaign on Thursday.

“Obviously, that is the focus of a lot of attention, but it’s not just because of the town of Colstrip. It’s not just because of the challenges they are clearly going to be facing,” Rosendale said. “It’s because of the issue itself, which is the development of our fossil fuels and the development of our resources.

“You can’t go into a state that has all this timber and all this valuable product locked in the ground and ignore it and think that the economic situation is going to improve for folks.”

The fourth Republican to enter the race to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Rosendale is promising to curb regulations that make mining, logging and oil drilling difficult.

Rosendale is of the opinion that state and federal regulations have harmed development of coal, oil and gas, including the non-development of major mining projects like Arch Coal’s failed Otter Creek mine in southeast Montana.

The candidate said permitting undid Otter Creek. Arch’s own explanation for the failure in 2015 was more complex.

Arch’s Coal’s Otter Creek leases held an estimated 1.5 billion tons of coal on state and federal lands. The company bid $86 million in 2010 to mine the state’s coal share. But by 2015, The global coal market was crashing. Arch suspended its state application in 2015 shortly after the company declared bankruptcy.

Arch cited a weak coal market and poor capital in explaining its decision to withdraw from permitting. The company said the path to getting the mine permitted was uncertain. The company hadn’t answered questions about water quality and quantity coming from the mine. Without those answers, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality wouldn’t move forward on issuing permits. Those questions went unanswered for seven months before Arch withdrew its permit application altogether.

On Colstrip, Rosendale favors the development of clean coal technology to deal with the carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. The U.S. Department of Energy last year, at the request of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, estimated that it would cost $1.2 billion or more to retrofit Colstrip power plant with technology capable of capturing carbon dioxide, which would then be sold to petroleum companies interested in pumping the pollution into old wells to release stubborn oil reserves.

However, there is no functional production-scale carbon-capture technology available now and Colstrip faces deadlines for at least partial closure. Colstrip Units 1 and 2 are to close in the next six years under terms agreed to by Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy to settle a pollution lawsuit. Two Oregon utilities with ownership shares in Colstrip Units 3 and 4, are obligated by law to begin phasing out coal power from the energy delivered to Oregon customers within the next 13 years.

More needs to be done to encourage the export of Montana's fossil fuels, Rosendale said. Getting federal government approval for coal ports would be a start, he said. In 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended the environmental review of the Puget Sound coal port intended to serve coal mined on the Crow Indian Reservation. The Army Corps did so at the request of the Lummi Tribe, which has treaty fishing rights to the Puget Sound area.

States should be making decisions on ports, Rosendale said, expressing a conservative preference for states’ rights and limited federal government.

A second coal port near Longview, Washington, has federal support and intends to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming.

Others who have already declared as candidates for the Senate seat are State Sen. Albert Olszewski, a Kalispell orthopedic surgeon; Ronald Murray, a Belgrade businessman and former state House candidate; and Troy Downing, the owner of a California-based storage company who lives in Big Sky.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.