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Gazette opinion: SB 379, a horror show for NorthWestern Energy customers, should be killed
GAZETTE OPINION

Gazette opinion: SB 379, a horror show for NorthWestern Energy customers, should be killed

Colstrip Power Plant

The Colstrip Power Plant is shown on Oct. 2, 2020.

There’s a horror movie being made right now for NorthWestern Energy customers.

Unfortunately, it's not a fictitious screenplay, but a documentary of impending disaster.

Scene 1: A conference room in Spokane, where Colstrip owners are enmeshed in an arbitration. At issue, among other things, in the arbitration: NorthWestern says that any decision to defer maintenance — or to close — Colstrip units 3 and 4 must be unanimous among owners. The other owners say no. They say such decisions should be made by an ownership majority, not by unanimity. Four of the other owners in Washington and Oregon face bans on using coal-fired power starting in 2025.

The subplot: If NorthWestern wins the arbitration, the other owners who wish to close the coal-fired units might actually be forced to give up their interests to NorthWestern, giving the utility complete control of Colstrip.

Scene 2: The Montana Capitol, where the Senate Thursday passed Senate Bill 379. It goes to the House later this week.

If passed by the House and signed by the governor, SB 379, known informally as NorthWestern Energy’s letter to Santa Claus, would shield the utility from financial loss and allow its costs associated with Colstrip to be passed on to ratepayers — even including remediation of the property, which is projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Public Service Commission analysts have estimated that if SB 379 passes and NorthWestern ends up with all of Colstrip, its customers would be liable for an additional $1.8 billion through 2042. Despite an amendment stating that the Public Service Commission "may allow" the utility to acquire additional shares, the PSC would be all but powerless to intervene — and utterly powerless after shares were added to rate base.

Scene 3: Consumers begin receiving bills reflecting additional hundreds of dollars per year. Actual costs are unknown. The plant, particularly Unit 4, is not in great shape. If it should be shut down for emergency repair, as it was in the recent past, under SB 379, consumers would be responsible for the cost of substitute power that NorthWestern would have to procure.

Indeed, the ways in which this bill potentially shafts ratepayers are almost countless.

For example: In 2016, the Public Service Commission ruled NorthWestern Energy owed its customers an $8.6 million refund for the cost of power the company incurred during a six-month Colstrip breakdown, saying that the company had acted “imprudently.”

Santa’s wish list has a fix for that: The bill redefines “prudence” so that NorthWestern will never be faced with something inconvenient and embarrassing like that refund order again.

The agonizing final scene: Colstrip closes, jobs are lost, and customers remain on the hook anyway.

Yes, it’s true: the bill doesn’t actually protect Colstrip at all. NorthWestern wouldn’t even have to keep the plant open to collect customers’ money for its share of the plant, up to 100 percent. If it were closed, ratepayers — emphasis on the “payers” — would be paying off the plant plus whatever the generation costs of substitute power would be.

Senate Bill 379 is the product of Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls — who happens to be the son of former NorthWestern Energy chief lobbyist John Fitzpatrick.

This bill is a mockery of good government that could potentially cost Montanans nearly $2 billion. It needs to die in the House of Representatives, where it will be heard in committee next week.

NorthWestern Energy employs many people in Montana, and is in many ways a good corporate citizen of the state. But that does not justify handing NWE a blank check, to be cashed against the accounts of its Montana customers.

Contact your House members and let them know you oppose this shocking giveaway to a utility monopoly.​

This editorial represents the views of the Billings Gazette Editorial Board: President Dave Worstell, Regional Editor David McCumber and Chief Photographer Larry Mayer. 

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