As of this writing, 1,269 bills and resolutions have been introduced by Montana legislators. Atop that mountain of proposed legislation, one bill stands alone as the worst abuse of power in terms of corporate cronyism and threats to Montanans pocketbooks. SB 379, introduced by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls), seeks to turn the aging Colstrip power plant into a $1.9 billion money siphon for NorthWestern Energy, forcing customers to pony up for extravagant business costs while removing any meaningful oversight of company decisions.
We’ve seen similar schemes from this monopoly utility in recent years, and the bottom line is always the same: Ratepayers assume all of the risks and costs while NorthWestern’s executives and shareholders enjoy guaranteed profits.
NorthWestern currently owns a 30% share of Colstrip’s Unit 4, and customers are already on the hook for the $272.4 million still owed for that acquisition. SB 379 would allow NorthWestern to buy a larger share of Colstrip while removing the Public Service Commission’s power to determine what costs ratepayers should cover. The public would assume all risks associated with operations, maintenance, repairs, or even plant closure with no meaningful protections. SB 379 gives NorthWestern a blank check to do whatever they want while sticking customers with the bill. And what a hefty bill it could be.
According to PSC analysis, SB 379 could allow NorthWestern to purchase all of Colstrip’s operational capacity to the tune of $1.9 billion. This purchase could cost every Montana NWE customer $700/year (or $14,000 per customer over 20 years), and that’s the minimum amount in this scenario. That figure is based on future depreciation timetables, which SB 379 does not require (meaning costs could increase). The figure also doesn’t account for energy NorthWestern might have to purchase elsewhere if they temporarily shut down the plant for repairs or maintenance.
Yes, this bill also allows NorthWestern to pass along costs for “replacement energy” even if those purchases result from temporary shutdowns due to mismanagement or failure to comply with clean air protections (the latter of which happened at Colstrip in 2018). But what about a permanent shutdown of Colstrip?
Well, that’s the most appalling aspect of this bill. SB 379 allows NorthWestern to put ratepayers on the hook for all of these costs, and nothing prevents them from shuttering the plant at any time. Every NorthWestern customer in Montana — whether a household or a business — could wind up paying thousands of dollars in stranded costs for an energy plant no longer producing electricity.
All five Public Service Commissioners have expressed opposition to SB 379. This came on the heels of a devastating memo from career PSC staffers recommending opposition. Despite the technical language of the staff analysis, one can’t miss the scathing critique which poked holes in the bill’s process, logic, legality, and basic fairness.
A choice line states,”… In guaranteeing security for NorthWestern’s Colstrip investment, SB 379 removes the burden of risk assigned to the utility and its stockholders and leaves the investment risk entirely with ratepayers.” In other words, NorthWestern executives and shareholders get all the honey, while customers take the bee stings.
Deregulation showed us what can happen when legislators make hasty decisions about our energy future without enough debate or information. Montanans are still paying the costs for deregulation, and SB 379 finds us flirting with another mistake that would haunt us for decades. And what an irresponsible time to take this risk.
Why would anyone support legislation increasing energy bills by hundreds of dollars when so many Montana families and businesses are hurting? We’re just beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel for a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on our economy for over a year. We can’t let SB 379 leave us stranded in the dark, paying for an overpriced power plant with an uncertain future. Tell your senator to vote no on SB 379.
Roxa Reller is vice-chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a family agriculture and conservation organization. She lives in Helena.