A large Montana coal plant serving utility customers across the Pacific Northwest agreed Tuesday to shut down two of its four units by 2022 and limit pollution from the plant until that happens, under a settlement with environmentalists who sued over emission violations.
Terms of the partial shutdown of the 2,100-megawatt Colstrip plant were contained in a consent decree filed in U.S. District Court in Montana.
The move follows a wave of coal plant closures that have transformed the utility industry in the United States, as cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas replaces coal as the dominant fuel source for electricity generation.
The latest announcement comes in the heart of coal country and is likely to reverberate through the election season, as Republicans seek to topple Montana's Democratic governor, Steve Bullock. The state holds almost one-third of the nation's known coal resources.
The portions of the plant slated to close under Tuesday's agreement — units 1 and 2 — opened in the 1970s. Their presence transformed a sparsely populated agricultural area of southeastern Montana into the bustling industrial town of Colstrip.
Bullock reacted angrily to news of the shutdown. He said the state was left out of discussions over Colstrip's future that took place among attorneys involved in a 2013 lawsuit from the Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center.
"The parties in the lawsuit took care of themselves. There's nothing about the workers, nothing about the community," Bullock said. He said he would work with Colstrip leaders to ease the impact by seeking out economic development grants, but he acknowledged there was little he could do to reverse the planned closure.
Bullock's Republican opponent, Bozeman technology entrepreneur Greg Gianforte, said the closure represented a "failure of leadership" that underscored the need for a new administration.
Colstrip co-owner Puget Sound Energy of Bellevue, Washington said low natural gas prices have made the plant less economic, and without the settlement Colstrip could have been forced to purchase costly pollution controls.
The plant employs about 360 people. Colstrip Mayor John Williams said even a partial shutdown would have devastating impact, causing job losses both at the plant and the nearby Rosebud coal mine that provides Colstrip with fuel.
But co-owner Puget Sound Energy said most of the plant's jobs likely would be retained as Colstrip's two other units continue operating.
"We know this will be a time of transition in Colstrip. We have been a part of the community for four decades and we will continue to be there for many years to come," PSE President Kimberly Harris said in a statement released by the Bellevue, Washington-based utility.
Plant manager Talen Energy, which is based in Pennsylvania and has been seeking in recent months to exit Colstrip, said there was no set timeline for closing the two units. Talen spokesman Todd Martin declined to comment on how many jobs could be lost, saying it was "premature to speculate" on the matter.
Combined, the two units slated to close generate about 600 megawatts of electricity.
A megawatt can power roughly 1,000 homes, but many of Colstrip's customers are industrial or commercial.
The 2013 lawsuit from the Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Center against the plant's six co-owners said upgrades meant to prolong the life of the plant were made without proper permits.
Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center said Tuesday's consent decree requires Colstrip's owners to decrease air pollution at the two impacted units until the day they close. She said the 2022 "end date" gives state and local officials room to figure out what's next for the community that depends on the plant.
"We are willing to live with those dates. It gives everybody time to plan and work toward a new future for the town of Colstrip," she said.