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Colstrip

Empty coal cars sit on the tracks leading into Colstrip in 2016.

President Donald Trump’s plan to replace Obama-era air pollution rules with coal-friendly policies got a mixed reception by Montana officials uncertain what the changes would mean for the Colstrip Power Plant.

Republicans praised Trump's plans to scrap former President Barrack Obama’s Clean Power Plan as good news for coal power. Though never carried out, the Obama rules called for dramatically cutting carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change.

Montanans had expected the Obama rules to finish off Colstrip Power Plant and likely its host community of 2,300 as well, as the state cut carbon dioxide emissions 47 percent to comply with federal law.

A new set of coal-friendly rules were rolled out by the EPA on Tuesday to replace the Obama policies. The “Affordable Clean Energy Rule” would allow states to ease up on pollution regulations when enforcing the rules might result in costly upgrades for coal-fired power plants. EPA officials said the new rules would force carbon dioxide levels down 34 percent nationally, but without shuttering power plants.

Colstrip has four generating units. The oldest two are scheduled for retirement no later than 2022 as part of a legal settlement with the Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center over air pollution.

Its newer units are offline for failing to clear federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS. The shutdown will be two months long next week. The Affordable Clean Energy Rule does not address MATS.

“Montana would have been devastated by President Obama’s overreaching Clean Power Plan," said U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in an email. "EPA’s new Affordable Clean Energy Rule will reduce emissions through innovation and incentivizing upgrades, instead of just shutting down coal plants at the expense of Montana's and the nation's families."

The Montana Republican said “the new rule gives states and energy producers the flexibility and control they need to reduce emissions while also maintaining and growing high-paying energy jobs that will allow Montana and the U.S. to lead in affordable clean energy.”

Daines included clean coal technology upgrades at power plants as one of the perks of the Trump plan, which would ease regulations on adding equipment to power plants. He had spoken earlier in the day at the Senate Energy Committee about the importance of keeping Colstrip around for new, high-energy-consuming businesses like bitcoin mines.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said he wasn’t familiar with the details of the plan, but that with climate change threatening the planet, something has to be done to clean up coal power and keep it part of America’s future.

“Coal is an important part of our energy portfolio. We just need to figure out how to burn it without burning the planet up,” Tester said in a Tuesday press conference. “I think it’s going to take a public-private partnership to figure out how we can deal with the CO2. And I don’t think we’ve been nearly aggressive enough on that on the federal level to make sure that happens.”

In 2016, the Department of Energy estimated that converting Colstrip to a “clean coal” power plant would cost $1.2 billion. The analysis was requested by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, who has also cited better technology as the key to keeping Colstrip and other coal-fired power plants in America’s energy mix.

Attempts to apply production scale clean-coal technology at U.S. power plants have cost billions and failed.

Montana’s Democrats were never strong supporters of the Clean Power Plan. Bullock blasted the Obama administration in 2015 for “moving the goalposts” on Montana after Obama’s EPA upped its prescription for carbon dioxide cuts in Montana.

Bullock didn’t respond to Lee Montana Newspaper’s requests for comment Tuesday. He was busy interviewing judges.

Like Daines, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Montana Republican, applauded the change.

“For eight years, the Obama administration consistently worked to undermine Montana energy and waged a punitive war on Montana coal. The Obama administration’s so-called Clean Power Plan would have raised electricity prices for Montanans, harmed our economy, cost American jobs, and threatened our energy security,” Gianforte said.

“I welcome the Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule, which would replace the burdensome, costly Obama-era mandate with a rule designed to empower states, promote American energy dominance, and protect our environment.”

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Challengers in the state’s 2018 congressional midterms issued the following statements.

"Jon Tester and President Obama worked together in support of disastrous job-killing regulations like their Clean Power Plan, that would have crippled Montana's coal industry and threatened the livelihoods of thousands of hard-working Montanans,” said Republican Matt Rosendale, Tester’s GOP challenger. “President Trump promised he would fight for our coal miners and workers — and he did. Unlike Jon Tester, I proudly stand alongside President Trump and together we will fight each and every day to protect Montana's coal miners, workers, their families and all the jobs supported by Montana's coal industry."

Kathleen Williams, Democratic challenger to Gianforte said: “I’ve consistently been committed to protecting Montana job opportunities, public health, and clean air and water. As a legislator I worked to find new ways to use coal, and as a candidate I am working to find creative ways to address changing market forces that affect our communities and economy. I look forward to reviewing the president’s proposal to ensure it advances these goals."

Talen Energy, which operates Colstrip Power Plant and has significant ownership share, did not respond to a requests for comment, which Lee Montana Newspapers made by phone and email Tuesday.

The change from Obama's coal pollution rules to Trump's coal pollution rules isn’t likely to help Colstrip as it struggles with multiple challenges, said Seth Feaster, energy data analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“In terms of the big picture, it doesn’t really change the underlying pressures on the utilities, and particularly Colstrip, that are facing things like customer calls to divest in coal and restructure assets,” Feaster said. “It’s one thing to set policies that try to help, but it’s not a bailout and it’s not going to make power plants any younger.”

Voters in Washington state, which uses a significant portion of Colstrip power, will decide in the general election whether to impose a carbon tax on coal power. Monday, the Spokane City Council voted to be 100 percent carbon-power free in 12 years. The city is in the territory of Avista Corp., a Colstrip owner attempting to merge with Hydro One, a Canadian energy customer that cut coal power from its supply several years ago.

Avista and Colstrip’s largest shareholder, Puget Sound Energy, have both agreed to be financially ready by 2027 to shutter Colstrip.

In Oregon, Colstrip co-owners Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp are required by law to stop supplying coal power to customers beginning in the 2030s. Public concern about climate change resulted in that mandate by the Oregon Legislature two years ago.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.