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by Anne Hedges

The January winter storm proved that NorthWestern Energy has dedicated linemen and on-the-ground employees; unfortunately, not everyone working for NorthWestern is so dedicated to their customers. Instead of protecting customers from unaffordable increases in electric bills, NorthWestern executives are plowing ahead with two fossil fuel projects that will increase customers’ bills without providing the reliability that customers need (see article on pg. 12). 

Despite failing to obtain approval to build its large industrial facility on property near Laurel that is zoned as agricultural, NorthWestern is nearly finished in building a methane gas power plant and is now daring anyone to try and stop it. For years, the City of Laurel and Yellowstone County both refused to force NorthWestern to obtain approval before building the plant. Both claimed the other had the authority to change the zoning. Finally, Earthjustice, on behalf of local residents known as the Thiel Road Coalition, Northern Plains Resource Council, and MEIC, sued in order to get a court decision that clarified who was responsible for changing the zoning. On Feb. 5, the court ruled that the County is responsible for the zone change. 

The Yellowstone County and City of Laurel City/County Planning Board held a hearing on Dec. 20 regarding changing the local land use plan to create a 1,000-acre industrial zone to accommodate NorthWestern’s gas plant and numerous undefined major industrial operations along the banks of the Yellowstone River. The Planning Board postponed its decision to mid-January when faced with strong community objections, but the rescheduled hearing met the same fate. Unfortunately, it seems clear that Yellowstone County intends to do everything in its power to accommodate whatever NorthWestern requests, and a zone change feels inevitable regardless of the serious concerns of existing landowners in the area. 

It’s unthinkable that the citizens of Laurel would be ignored so many times in their quest to be heard. It’s another in a long line of questionable decisions from NorthWestern executives, who continue to mislead the public, rake in millions of dollars every year, and fail to guide the company toward the modern energy era. If the value of NorthWestern’s stock is any indication, the utility is not on a good path for customers or investors; the stock has lost 40% of its value over the last four years.

MEIC is also challenging the state’s permit for the gas plant based upon the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) failure to consider the climate impacts of the methane-burning plant. The district court agreed that DEQ should have considered climate change in its air permitting process. However, after the 2023 Legislature changed the law to prohibit state agencies from considering climate change when issuing permits, the judge maintained the decision that the state was required to consider climate impacts, but he allowed the utility to continue building the gas plant while DEQ conducted the proper review. Almost a year later, DEQ has yet to conduct that review. The district court decision is now on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. 

Finally, NorthWestern still needs permission from the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) to charge customers for the gas plant. NorthWestern has requested permission twice, MEIC has objected twice, and NorthWestern has withdrawn its request twice. Unfortunately, the PSC decision in the rate case allows NorthWestern to return once more using a novel, unrelated process that allows it to submit a request to seek cost recovery whenever it wants. MEIC will be ready to go when this docket starts, and will push back on NorthWestern’s false narrative that only methane gas can provide the reliability that customers demand. For NorthWestern, facts don’t seem to matter and it has yet to explain why gas has failed to be a reliable resource during the most extreme weather events. 



This article was published in the March 2024 issue of Down To Earth. 

Read the full issue here.


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