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Standing before the remains of Billings’ coal-fired J.E. Corette power plant, GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte said Montana government needs to rally around Colstrip.

Speaking to 35 people on a windy, overcast morning, Gianforte called on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to veto a bill to finance Colstrip Power Plant's partial closure. Inslee and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock are both Democrats. Gianforte said Bullock should persuade Inslee to kill the bill.

“Gov. Inslee, veto this bill. Seventy-one hundred Montana jobs and $1.5 billion in economic activity and the entire community of Colstrip hangs in the balance,” Gianforte said. “This bill needs to be vetoed.”

Talen Energy closed the J.E. Corette power plant in 2015 as a cheaper alternative to complying with federal mercury air pollution standards. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled the Environmental Protection Agency hadn't considered the cost of complying with the mercury rule. The Corette site has since become a symbol for coal advocates who accused the the EPA of needlessly shuttering old power plants.

Gianforte opened his remarks by repeating an allegation he made last weekend, suggesting that Inslee was scheduled to be in Big Sky “hobnobbing” with Bullock and anti-coal lobbyists. Bullock should be lobbying the governor to veto the bill.

Inslee was not in Big Sky over the weekend, where members of the Democratic Governors Association gathered. Inslee called a special session of the Washington Legislature last Thursday after lawmakers failed to pass a supplemental budget.

Bullock’s staff told The Gazette the governor did lobby Inslee and the Washington Legislature about Senate Bill 1547B, also known as the Colstrip bill. The governor’s persuasion did influence the legislation lawmakers eventually passed.

Initially, the Colstrip bill set a deadline for Puget Sound Energy to close Colstrip Units 1 and 2, of which PSE shares ownership with Talen Energy. The bill now waiting to be signed into law by Inslee allows PSE to begin funding a retirement account to close the oldest two of Colstrip’s four units, but doesn’t set a closure date. The retirement account funding, with a few exceptions, isn’t available until after Dec. 31, 2022, meaning that Colstrip would likely stay open seven more years, barring regulatory changes or cost burdens.

"Today is another reminder that Greg Gianforte's campaign would rather mislead Montanans than focus on solutions to problems,” said Jason Pitt, of the Montana Democrats. “It's very clear that instead of supporting the Governor and legislators that are fighting to protect the Colstrip community, Gianforte would rather hold political stunts such as this one.”

Gianforte did say Montana should be focused on developing technology to better control emissions from coal power plants.

Earlier in the year, Bullock, confronted with tighter carbon dioxide pollution regulations under the federal Clean Power Plan, appointed an advisory committee of people mostly tied to the coal power industry. The committee was quickly suspended after a federal court challenge put the Clean Power Plan on hold.

That committee should still be assembled and working on clean coal power solutions, Gianforte said. The governor should be supporting state Attorney General Tim Fox, who is representing Montana in the lawsuit opposing the Clean Power Plan.

“There is no reason to shut down Colstrip. It will basically do nothing to lower temperatures and that’s according to Barack Obama’s own Environmental Protection Agency,” Gianforte said.

However the EPA is calling for a 47 percent cut in Montana’s carbon dioxide emissions, which aren’t likely to be attained without partially shutting down Colstrip. Colstrip is also the nation's 15th largest power plant producer of greenhouse gasses, according to the EPA

Gianforte was flanked by Colstrip residents Ashley Dennehy and Lori Shaw, organizers of the website. Dennehy said Washington state’s Colstrip bill and federal regulations will needlessly destroy her town.

“Our coal contributes more than $100 million to the state of Montana every year, just from our little town. That’s a pretty crazy number and Montana can’t do without that,” Dennehy said. “This helps to provide schools, public works, state parks and so much more all across the state. This is all under fire and anti-coal movements are gaining momentum.”

Many of the statistics cited at the event came from a 2015 Bureau of Business and Economic Research study on the economic consequences of rolling out the Clean Power Plan in Montana. That study forecasts a $1.5 billion loss in gross output sales by Montana businesses, as well as a statewide loss of 7,100 jobs. The report, commissioned by Northwestern Energy has drawn counter analysis from Headewaters Economics suggesting that economic losses would be limited the four counties with economies directly connected to coal.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.