HELENA — Though the buzz in Colstrip last week was over the uncertainty facing the town’s coal-fired power plant posed by a federal mandate that Montana cut its carbon dioxide emissions almost in half by 2030, other forces that could shutter two of the plant’s units loom much larger in the near future.

An interim legislative committee meets this week to talk about the Clean Power Plan and meet the governor’s new council that will by July make recommendations on how Montana can comply with the new federal rules.

Some 630 miles away in Olympia, Wash., on Monday, that state’s Legislature kicks off a 60-day session — during which a bill is expected to be introduced that could allow a utility in that state to close Colstrip’s older Units 1 and 2, possibly before 2030.

The two situations involving Colstrip and the 350 jobs of the men and women who work in Units 1 and 2 are both complicated in their own right, and they are intertwined.

Washington Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is chair of that state’s Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. He said there’s draft legislation that would allow Puget Sound Energy to purchase a bigger stake in Colstrip’s newer units, 3 and 4, something the utility is prohibited to do by Washington law.

If the utility wants to shut down Units 1 and 2 — it owns 50 percent of each — it would need power from somewhere else, like Unit 3, to meet the demand of its 500,000 customers. That’s one scenario of the draft legislation passing, though Ericksen said there are other possible results like the utility continuing to run the older units and selling that electricity on the open market.

“There are a lot of different options out there,” he said. “It’s difficult to say right now. There are a lot of moving pieces.”

Montana legislators have been invited to a hearing of his energy committee this session, he said.

Plans also are being made to set up a weekly conference call with Montana lawmakers and people who live in Colstrip.

“There are a lot of moving pieces on down to the state level, so we are going to be looking for solutions that can protect the long-term energy future for Montana and Washington and protect jobs in both states.”

Ericksen said his concern is to protect Washington ratepayers by making sure utilities have access to a reliable, cost-effective energy grid. He isn’t sure what sort of outcome to expect if the legislation is heard in his committee.

“In this hyper-politically charged atmosphere of 2016, I have great concerns about this,” he said.

Back in Colstrip

Last week Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced his Clean Power Plan Advisory Council from Colstrip City Hall.

The meaning of that location, just blocks from the stacks of the the coal-fired power plant that cast a long shadow over town, wasn’t lost on state Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip.

Ankney praised Bullock for announcing the council, which has been criticized as not having enough clean-energy advocates, in “the house that coal built.”

“Well, someday” is Ankney’s response to the question of whether the older Colstrip units will be phased out. “But I don’t think that’s in the near future.”

Ankney has been in contact with Washington lawmakers to stay on top of their plans. Montana lawmakers brought four of their counterparts in Washington to tour the older units in Colstrip the week before Thanksgiving.

“The information they were given out there in Washington is these plants were ready to fall apart,” Ankney said. “They were astounded at the condition of these plants, how clean they were.”

One Washington staffer was worried about her asthma, but didn’t have any trouble during the tour.

“She did that whole thing and it never affected her a bit,” Ankney said. “For her to go back to Washington and say ‘These things are clean.’ … We had a very good meeting with them, we have a very good rapport.”

Ankney is on Bullock’s council. He wants to see that group work to keep the plant open in both the near and more distant future.

“My goal is to pursue different avenues that will keep these plants moving,” he said. “If there’s technology, is there a way that we can get some type of help to put measures on these plants, whether it’s additives in the coal, whatever it is, to get them cleaner-burning.”

Utility regulators investigate

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In June, Washington state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission, which is similar to Montana’s Public Service Commission, opened an investigation into the costs of retiring the Units 1 and 2, which were built in 1975 and 1976.

That commission said it was essential to understand how consumers’ electricity rates might change if Puget Sound Energy shuts down the older units after three bills that that would allow the utility to do so failed in the 2015 Washington Legislature.

That report is expected to come out in the next few weeks. The commission said at this point it’s an open investigation and what happens next will depend on what’s in the report.

Anne Hedges, deputy director and lead lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said she thinks economic forces will help shut down the older units at Colstrip.

In 2013, Talen Energy, which owns half of Units 1 and 2, cut the market value of its stake in Colstrip by 87 percent. Talen, unlike Puget Sound and the other three utilities with ownership in Colstrip, sells its power on the open market and can’t pass along costs to consumers. Low natural gas prices have also delivered a hit to coal-fired power plants.

A representative for Talen Energy, a spinoff of PPL Montana, said Friday that the company can’t yet speculate on what would happen with its ownership in Units 1 and 2 if Puget Sound ever moves to shut them down.

“It would either need to be enacted or not enacted, and at that time we would have a basis to make a business decision,” said Todd Martin, Talen media relations manager.

Martin said that Talen employees are working on the other force that could change operations at Colstrip, the Clean Power Plan Advisory Council, which includes Talen environmental and engineering compliance director Gordon Criswell.

“We expect to be productive participants in the plan,” Martin said. “When recommendations are made, when the state of Montana comes up with an implementation plan, that is the time we would be able to make a business decision.”

Bullock would not speculate on how Washington legislation could affect any work by his council or if a move by Puget Sound Energy to close the older Colstrip units would help Montana meet its emission reduction goals.

"Given the nature and complexity of the CPP, there are too many moving parts to speculate on what impact hypothetical legislation would have on Montana’s plan at this point," he said through spokeswoman Ronja Abel.

The council will meet for the first time in early February, and the recommendations are due in July.

"The council does have a lot of work to do and we envision several multiday meetings with numerous opportunities for public input as we work towards providing Montana’s initial submittal to the EPA by September 2016," Abel said.

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