The return of Montana’s copper collar

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Mark Twain is credited with saying, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” And so it is with SB 331, which is winding its way through the Legislature. This bill authorizes NorthWestern Energy to buy more interest in old coal plants and automatically pass the costs, plus profit margin, onto their customers without review by the Public Service Commission. It also puts ratepayers on the hook for more of the decommissioning and cleanup costs in the future.

There have been a lot of articles and editorials warning of the pitfalls of this bill. Consumer advocates lined up to testify in opposition. Community groups urged their supporters to contact legislators to oppose the bill. And yet SB 331 just keeps rolling on. It passed one committee, it got sent to another committee, where it was killed and resurrected. It passed by the full Senate on the first vote, failed on the second vote, and was finally resurrected and passed over to the House.

Unfortunately, this is just one more chapter in the long, sad saga about politics, power and greed in Montana. In the 1970s the fight over permits and construction of Colstrip Units 3 and 4 was a long and bitter battle. Though the utility companies won in the end, the public concern and opposition resulted in passage of the Major Facilities Siting Act, the Coal Severance Tax and the Coal Tax Trust.

In the 1980s the Pacific Northwest was awash in low-cost power when the Montana Power company came to the Montana Public Service Commission and requested a 55 percent rate increase to include power form Colstrip 3 in consumer bills. The PSC said no (back when the PSC did its job), and Montana Power went to court. In the end Montana Power was allowed a much smaller rate increase. Based on that experience, Montana Power chose never to try to put Colstrip 4 into customer rates.

And in the 1990s Montana Power came forward with its proposal to deregulate. We all know what a disaster that turned out to be. It is yet one more example of Montana Power and other big corporations (primarily the large electric users) telling Montana to jump and our Legislature simply asking, “How high?”

The coal industry is in decline. Coal plants are closing all over the country, because coal is no longer competitive. Major utilities are refusing to buy or build coal power. Our focus should be on a smooth transition away from coal, not propping it up with guarantees and subsidies paid for by ratepayers and required by law.

Maybe worst of all is what this bill does to younger Montanans. SB 311 guarantees the costs of operating and then decommissioning and cleanup will automatically be paid by customers for years into the future. Young people are already saddled with crushing student debt, because we refused to adequately fund education. They will pay for infrastructure that is crumbling, because we refused to invest in repairs and replacements. They are confronting record budget deficits, because our political leaders gave tax cuts to the super rich. They face the worst impacts of climate change, because we let big corporations like NorthWestern Energy control our government.

There is a clear path through the hallways of our history from NorthWestern Energy to Montana Power to the Anaconda Company to Standard Oil. The “copper collar” is still around our necks, only the names and faces have changed.

Ken Toole is the board chair of Big Sky 55+. He served in both the Montana Senate and the Public Service Commission.

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