By Anne Hedges
NorthWestern Energy subscribes to the attitude that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission when it comes to building its 175-megawatt methane gas plant on the banks of the Yellowstone River near Laurel. It continues to build the plant despite lacking zoning approval from the City of Laurel to change the land use from “agricultural” to “heavy industrial.” It lacks approval from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for an air permit that a court rejected due to the state’s failure to disclose and analyze the environmental harm. And it has twice withdrawn its request to the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) to pass the $286 million cost onto customers. In short, it’s building the plant and hoping to get away with it despite lacking the legal permission to do so. Stall long enough, and it becomes more and more unlikely that a court order would “unbuild” a completed plant.
Two years ago, NorthWestern requested approval from the Laurel City Commission to change the zoning of the plant site to allow for heavy industrial use. When the community complained that the plant would be too loud, bright, and polluting for an agricultural area along the Yellowstone, NorthWestern withdrew its proposed zoning change request and proceeded with construction. Soon after, new city staff decided to ignore the City’s obligation to rezone the property. The County insisted it was the City’s responsibility to rezone. The Thiel Road Coalition, MEIC, and Northern Plains Resource Council, represented by Earthjustice, challenged the city’s failure to rezone the property. A state district court hearing was held in Billings on Aug. 17, 2023 (a week following this writing), followed by a rally in support of the community near the plant. There is no timeframe for the court to issue a ruling, but we hope it will be done quickly.
NorthWestern also lacks a valid air pollution permit from the DEQ after a Billings district court judge ruled in April 2023 that the permit was invalid because DEQ had failed to disclose the plant’s impacts on the climate and neighboring community under the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). The court vacated the permit but reversed course after the Legislature hastily changed the law to prohibit DEQ from considering the methane plant’s contribution to the climate crisis (though a court recently found the new law unconstitutional in the Held case). The plant is projected to emit three quarters of a million tons of greenhouse gases each year, as well as methane emissions from extraction and leaky pipeline infrastructure. The court required DEQ to conduct a more thorough analysis of the plant’s environmental impacts; however, DEQ only analyzed the plant’s lighting impacts on the surrounding area and Yellowstone River corridor. The comment deadline closed in early July, and DEQ is slow-walking a final decision while NorthWestern continues to build the plant, leaving the neighboring landowners and those concerned about the plant’s impact on the climate crisis with no remedy. Once DEQ issues a permit, MEIC fully intends to challenge DEQ’s analysis as well as the constitutionality of the Legislature’s attempt to exempt climate change from consideration under MEPA, one of the primary state laws that implements the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.
Finally, as reported in the last issue of Down to Earth, NorthWestern Energy has twice requested the PSC allow it to charge customers for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the power plant. The PSC has not ruled on NorthWestern’s most recent request to withdraw its proposal to charge customers through the rate case proceedings. If the PSC approves NorthWestern’s proposed settlement with one-third of the parties involved in the rate case, then NorthWestern will be allowed to file for permission to charge customers in a proceeding in September. Unfortunately, the scope of what NorthWestern will be allowed to request for cost recovery in the upcoming proceeding is incredibly unclear and will result in NorthWestern being allowed to hide the ball. The public will simply not know the full cost of the plant before the PSC is required to decide if customers must pay those costs.
NorthWestern has complete disregard for its customers and their bills. With the proposed 28% rate increase followed by a request to build an expensive new power plant and an IRP that only considers expensive new power plants instead of less expensive energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy, Montanans simply cannot afford its mismanagement.
This article was published in the September 2023 issue of Down To Earth.