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President Trump’s plans to prop up struggling coal power plants are getting high marks from Montana Republicans Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte, who see a benefit to Colstrip Power Plant.

The president on June 1 called for immediate steps to help at-risk coal and nuclear power plants. The order came a day after the leak of a 41-page Department of Energy memo laying out plans for the federal government to intervene in energy markets, where coal and nuclear power have lost business to cheaply priced natural gas and renewable energy.

The memo, obtained by Bloomberg, called coal and nuclear power essential to keeping the United States' energy grid “resilient” and protecting national security. Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed a similar plan last fall. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in January concluded there was ample power without propping up coal and nuclear power plants.

Perry's language was the same used by Daines May 30 to describe the regional role of Colstrip, part of which will close within five years. Daines and Gianforte brought representatives from DOE and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to Colstrip to meet with locals May 30. It was the first day of the senator’s energy summit, which finished the next day in Billings.

It’s not clear whether Colstrip would benefit from the president’s order, but Daines said in a Friday email that Colstrip fit the bill of the power plants described by DOE.

“The plan as reported recognizes coal plants as critical to reliability and national security — criteria that DOE officials noted about Colstrip during my Energy Summit, but as with many things, the devil is in the details,” Daines said.

The draft proposal by DOE suggested the federal government force energy grid owners to buy coal and nuclear power at higher-than-market price for up to two years to prevent power plants from shutting down.

“Colstrip is essential to the reliability of our power grid and to our energy security, which is why we brought Trump administration officials to Colstrip during the recent energy summit,” Gianforte said. “I support efforts to protect America’s critical energy infrastructure and look forward to reviewing the details of the president’s proposal.”

The tough regulations and completion from cheap power that DOE hints at aren’t really at the root of Colstrip’s challenges. The two oldest of Colstrip’s four units are slated for closure because in 2016 co-owners Talen Energy, of Pennsylvania, and Puget Sound Energy, of Washington, agreed to shut down Units 1 and 2 to settle an air pollution lawsuit.

Units 3 and 4 are co-owned by Talen, Puget and four other utilities. Only Talen sells power on the competitive market. The other owners are all regulated utilities capable of selling the electricity at above-market price to captive customers. Co-owner NorthWestern Energy, for example, sells its Colstrip Power to Montana customers at more than double market price, according to the Montana Consumer Counsel. 

“We’re not aware at this point that it will have an impact,” said Grant Ringel, Puget Sound Energy spokesman. “One, because the announcement of the closure of 1 and 2 was the result of a lawsuit settlement, and two, (Units) 3 and 4 don’t have closure dates.”

Puget and three other Pacific Northwest utility owners — Avista Corp., of Washington, and PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric, of Oregon, expect either to be financially ready by 2027 to close the power plant or to be prevented by Oregon state law from selling coal to power customers by the early 2030s. The power plant owners have been careful not to say those plans point to an actual closure date.

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Rosebud Mine, which feeds Colstrip, is expected to close in 2029, according to its owner Westmoreland Coal Co. of Colorado.

Democratic lawmakers from states served by Colstrip power have said the Trump order is an unnecessary bailout that will drive up electricity bills for consumers.

“It's bad enough gas prices have already risen under the Trump administration, but now the latest reports show Secretary Perry is doubling down on his absurd plan to blow up energy markets and raise utility rates to pad the wallets of his coal executive friends,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said in a press release last week. "This would be an egregious abuse of power.”

In Washington, Puget Sound and Avista have indicated that they would replace Colstrip power with energy from natural gas, renewable resources and hydraulic dams.

Natural gas and renewable energy companies called the Trump proposal a needless government intervention into free markets that are producing cheap power for consumers now.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.