By Dan Catchpole, Clearing Up

Coal industry boosters in the Montana Legislature are fighting to keep the Colstrip power plant alive even as four of its six owners head for the door.

A flurry of bills coming from the state Senate aim to make it harder for the four utilities to exit the plant and would give NorthWestern Energy a free hand to buy more of Colstrip.

In legislative committee hearings, supporters have cast Colstrip as a public asset for Montanans that out-of-state interests are trying to callously close.

Critics have attacked the bills as bailouts for Colstrip and NWE that remove regulatory oversight, override private contracts and stick Montana ratepayers’ with the bill. The Montana PSC, which is generally sympathetic to coal-fired resources, unanimously voted to oppose Senate Bill 379, which would allow NorthWestern to acquire more Colstrip capacity with no regulatory oversight or check on rate-basing the costs.

The bills have been beneficial for several well-connected Montana Republican political operators hired by Colstrip’s out-of-state owners to lobby for or against the legislation. Co-owner and plant operator Talen Energy is backing the bills, which were drafted by NorthWestern allies in the Legislature.

Avista, PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric and Puget Sound Energy oppose the bill. They are under state mandates to remove coal-fired resources from their respective portfolios, with Avista and PSE looking to get out of Colstrip by the end of 2025.

The three biggest bills—SB 265, 266 and 379—were drafted by Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, son of longtime NorthWestern Energy’s chief lobbyist, John Fitzpatrick.

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