Washington passes bills on two coal-fired power plants

Colstrip power plant

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — A bill that would authorize the state's largest utility to create a fund to pay for the eventual shutdown of two coal-fired electricity plants in Montana easily passed the Washington State Senate on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 6248, which is being closely watched in Montana, passed by a vote of 42-7, and it now heads to the State House for consideration.

The bill was amended to remove any provisions calling for the closure of two older coal-fired plants located in the company town of Colstrip, Montana.

Bill sponsor Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said the measure now simply authorizes Puget Sound Energy to fund a "retirement account" to cover future decommissioning and remediation costs of the power plants, but only if they are closed after 2023.

"This legislation does not close down anything," Ericksen said in floor debate. "There is no time frame for decommissioning."

'This protects the interests of the people of Montana," Ericksen added.

Montana officials had feared the bill would set a deadline for shutting down Colstrip Units 1 and 2, built in the 1970s, throwing hundreds of people out of work.

The bill faced opposition from Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Hoodsport, who wanted more time to study an issue important to the economy of Montana.

"This bill will result in litigation," Sheldon predicted. He also said it would increase rates for customers of Puget Sound Energy.

Montana state Sen. Duane Ankney, a Republican who represents Colstrip, called the amended legislation "a really bad bill." The earliest closure date should be extended to 2025 or 2030 to give Montana officials a chance to plan, he said.

A town hall meeting in Colstrip is planned for Feb. 25, Ankney said. "I'll just tell them where we're at," he said.

Shutting down and cleaning up the two oldest units at the Colstrip power plant in southeast Montana would cost $130 million to $200 million, according to Puget Sound Energy, which owns half of Colstrip Units 1 and 2.

The Colstrip Power Plant is the nation's 15th-largest producer of greenhouse gases, emitting 13.5 million metric tons annually, according to the EPA. Units 1 and 2 are its oldest and biggest polluters.

Concern has been expressed about what the impact of shutting down the units would be for the 2,300 residents of the company town of Colstrip.

The newer Colstrip Units 3 and 4 would continue to operate if the other two are shut down, Puget Sound Energy officials said.

Four Montana lawmakers told a Washington state Senate committee recently that even a partial shutdown would have dire economic consequences on the southeastern Montana community of Colstrip and on industrial users across the state that depend on cheap power from Colstrip Units 1 and 2.

Six companies — none of them headquartered in Montana — own Colstrip's four coal-fired plants, giving the state little power to stop them from being shut down. Colstrip, the second-largest coal-fired plant in the West, is under pressure from a weak coal market and increasing federal regulations.

Closing the two Colstrip units would remove 614 megawatts of coal-generated electricity from the grid, equal to between 5 and 6 million tons of carbon-dioxide emissions annually.

In Oregon, Portland General Electric and PacificCorp. — two more Colstrip owners — helped write legislation to wean that state off coal-produced electricity by 2035.

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