Montana's Green New Deal

Perspective By Brad Molnar
Thursday, February 6, 2020
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Brad Molnar

One of the biggest stories of the recent legislative session was the “Save Colstrip” bill. The premise: “There is a shortage of reliable power to serve Montanans due to coal plants being replaced by renewable energy.” Editorial boards and real professionals called for Save Colstrip’s demise while chest thumping legislators kicked it up hill.

Technical read but worth it

The original Save Colstrip bill, SB 278, was submitted by Sen. Duane Ankney R-Colstrip/ Huntley but carried by Sen. Tom Richmond R-Laurel/Lockwood. The hearing lasted under 20 minutes. The bill passed 9-4. When legislators calculated the true cost of the $1 purchase of generation to be hundreds of millions in debt foisted on rate payers, they balked. Senator Richmond reincarnated SB 278 as SB 331. SB 331 went through multiple amendments including putting rate payers on the hook for $75 million in repair costs for ten years and unknown clean up/ decommissioning costs with the PSC limited to rubber stamping the increases. NWE suddenly remembered they needed transmission lines to transmit so, at an undisclosed price, they were included. Also included in SB 331 was that NWE could shut down their coal fired generation without PSC approval, sticking rate payers with the un-depreciated value (minimum $160M). SB 331 failed 20-29. A little back slapping and it passed 27-22.

At the House Energy Committee opponents overflowed into the hallway demanding SB 331 be tabled and let the PSC explore the ramifications. Locally, Commissioner O’Donnell took the minority position and opposed the bill. The amended bill passed out of committee party line, 7(R)-5 (D). On the House floor Zolnikov (now an announced candidate for PSC) explained the PSC had been put back in total control. Not. In this version NWE could still shutter coal fired generation without PSC approval. This would trigger rate payers paying the $160M and losing the $75M in maintenance “fees.” Plus the rate basing of whatever replaced the capacity they shuttered. Plus any transmission required. Plus any remediation ordered by the EPA. The final figure would have nine zero’s. NONE on the House floor caught this so the amended bill passed 63-38. An email exposing the remaining trickery killed SB 331 the next day, 37-60. You can thank me later.

So then …

Three days after the defeat of Save Colstrip, Bob Rowe, CEO of NorthWestern Energy, had a conversation with Greg Hertz (D) Speaker of the House about putting Montana on a green diet.

Montana’s Green New Deal

In an April 22, 2019, email referencing that meeting CEO Rowe wrote to, Sen. Duane Ankney (R) chairman of Senate Energy, Senate President Scott Sales (R) (now candidate for Secretary of State who says he does not remember the meeting), Sen. Tom Richmond (R) (standing for re-election), Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso (D) (term limited), and House Energy Committee Chair Daniel Zolnikov (R) (now candidate for Public Service Commission), ‘Working together we can achieve carbon neutrality. We have developed an approach that is responsive to the Governor’s view. It contains a mandate to be 75% carbon neutral by 2030 and 100% “net” carbon neutral by 2045. Please work with your colleagues to move this important concept forward through HB 597. HB 597 was a Daniel Zolnikov bill held up for this purpose.

Collusion? Collaboration?

Four versions of amendments to HB 597 turning it into a 100% green energy mandate and removing the PSC from cost allocations were already prepared by Legislative Services. One version of HB 597 was signed by Sen. Duane Ankney and the same green mandate provisions were amended into HB 22 and signed by Sen. Tom Richmond. Richmond’s was selected for a Free Conference Committee.

During floor debate about sending HB 22 to a Free Conference Committee Richmond never mentioned it was a mandate to shut down Colstrip, mandate renewables, and supply renewables to Washington State rewarding them for shutting down Colstrip 1 and 2. Instead, he said it contained “issues of importance to Montana.”

The motion died 21-28 in a bi-partisan manner. All senators referenced in the email of NWE CEO Bob Rowe voted “yes”. Of note, Sen. Al Olszewski, candidate for governor, voted “no” and Senator Thomas, sponsor of the 1997 “dereg” bill, voted “yes.”

The bill promoted as the savior of Colstrip’s reliable power was actually intended to shutter Colstrip in ten years, right after the $75M in maintenance allocations was spent. Last week executives of NWE were on the statewide Voices of Montana radio program announcing they want to purchase a larger share of Colstrip for just one dollar. They stated the need is mandated because of the decommissioning of coal generation in the region and the growth of intermittent power.



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