Montana’s Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte accused Washington Gov. Jay Inslee of killing Colstrip during a heated exchange on climate change Tuesday at a House Energy Committee hearing.
The exchange between Inslee and Gianforte occurred when Montana’s Republican lawmakers interjected Colstrip into broader discussions about climate change and energy on Capitol Hill, first in the House and later in the Senate, where Steve Daines pressed Energy Secretary Rick Perry about a federal investment in Colstrip.
Inslee, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the need for an effective federal policy on climate change. Over two hours, the governor discussed how climate change policy in Washington was improving the environment and the economy through green energy jobs.
The Washington Legislature is working on a bill to remove carbon-based fuels from its energy supply by the mid-2040s, starting with coal in 2025. The move would unplug that state from the Colstrip power plant in Montana. Gianforte seized on the economic consequences to the Montana power plant community of 2,300 people.
“Their livelihoods are threatened. You testified today that your policies have had no detrimental effect on any community,” Gianforte said, producing a report suggesting Colstrip would be damaged from the power plant’s closing. “That report, by the University of Montana, shows that Montana would lose over $5 billion in revenue. Montana would lose nearly two thirds, 3,300 jobs, and our population would go down by 7,000 people. And I would just offer that those are devastating impacts of your policy on Montana and our communities.
“You’ve also opposed the building of a coal plant," he continued. "I don’t think in your position as governor you have jurisdiction over Japan. Japan wants to buy our coal. I think it’s a Constitutional issue. I’m just here to state that closer to home, we have real issues with these policies. And I appreciate you being here, governor, and I hope my colleagues can learn from, honestly, Washington state’s mistakes instead of repeating them on a national level.”
A power plant in Japan has contracted for coal from Cloud Peak Energy, which operates Spring Creek mine in southeast Montana.
“I would suggest that you look at the model that we have for the transition of our coal-fired plant in Centralia, Washington,” Inslee said. “I think you’ll find that it’s been very successful in helping that community through this transition because it was a consensus-based product. It involved a substantial investment to help the working people who were associated with it and the consumers and the small business people.”
In Centralia, utility companies with ownership in the coal-fired TransAlta power plant are spending $55 million to transition the community away from coal energy. That plant will retire in 2020. One of the TransAlta owners, Puget Sound Energy, is among the five utilities with ownership in Colstrip. In 2017, under terms approved by the Washington Utility and Transportation Commission, Puget committed $10 million in transition funding for Colstrip, while also agreeing to be financially ready to close the power plant by December 2027.
“I would invite you to come to Colstrip, Montana, with me and meet the people whose livelihoods you are extinguishing. You have my open invitation,” Gianforte said.
Inslee responded: “I would invite you to come meet the people who are having trouble breathing because of coal-fired electricity pollution. These are the children of Washington and the people whose houses are burning.”
In the Senate, Republican Steve Daines pressed Energy Secretary Rick Perry about investing in the carbon sequestration technology for Colstrip power plant. Daines pointed at $190 million in federal stimulus funds spent at the Petra Nova coal plant in Texas where carbon pollution is captured from the 240 megawatt facility and piped to oil fields 80 miles away. The federal contribution came from former President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Clean coal technology has struggled to deliver results, but carbon capture as a means of keeping Colstrip burning is popular with Montana politicians, including Gov. Steve Bullock, an early speaker on the Democratic presidential candidate circuit.
Daines told Perry that Colstrip’s mostly continuous “base-load” power was crucial to all things Montana.
“The challenge is, if we lose Colstrip, it’s base-load power, we risk hard working jobs that boilermakers have, miners, other laborers, who call our beautiful state home," Daines said. "And, Mr. Secretary, we are a state that still relies on hardworking Montanans, where moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas can go down to Walmart and buy an elk tag over the counter for $20. The youth tag is $8, if you’re 12 to 14 years old, because it’s something that all Montanans love to do or most Montanans love to do, we want to preserve that so it’s not just the rich and famous that are locking up our state to a balanced approach to natural resources. Forty percent of that power flows to Washington State, and Gov. Inslee continues to put politics before high-paying jobs in my state, high-paying jobs on the Indian reservations, and affordable base-load electricity. He’s pressuring owners to get away from carrying coal-fired electricity, as if electrons knew the difference.”
Coal power has struggled to compete with cheaper electricity from natural gas and renewable energy sources, according to Perry’s Department of Energy. The secretary acknowledged that coal power was not cheap, but said America needed it nonetheless.
“You’re absolutely correct that we’ve got to have a portfolio that is broad in this country, that if we just make the decisions about the economics, there are cheaper ways to deliver energy in the country. Right now we’re blessed with an abundance of natural gas, and thank god we’ve got that, but you never want to have that phone call that comes in and says, we have people that are losing their lives in part of the state because we weren’t willing to pay for diversity to make sure that we had an all-of-the-above energy strategy,” Perry said. “It would be like saying, ‘We’re going to keep America free, but we don’t need x-numbers of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, we can do it with this many. We really don’t need a, let’s just have a 100-ship Navy because you know that’s cheaper and we can use these dollars for something else.’ You can keep America free for some period of time on the cheap, but I’m not willing to bet the future of this country on it, and I hope the people of this country aren’t willing to basically say, 'We’re going to have an energy strategy, a national security strategy in this country that’s just based on cost.’”
Perry committed to looking into carbon sequestration for Colstrip, although the part of the Energy Department budget the subsidy would come from currently contains $30 million.
Earlier this year, state legislator Duane Ankney met with the Trump administration to discuss the future of Colstrip.