Montana governor's bid to balance Obama climate plan with jobs faces scrutiny in coal country

Energy Associated Press

Gov. Steve Bullock's assertion that Montana can meet the Obama administration's climate goals without shutting down power plants is getting its first public test in the heart of coal country.

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State officials planned a Tuesday public meeting in Colstrip on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to cut greenhouse emissions. The town is home to one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the West — a 2,100-megawatt facility that churns out more greenhouse gases than any other source in Montana.

It's also a regional economic driver with 360 workers. Hundreds more are employed at the nearby Rosebud mine.

Bullock two weeks ago laid out a framework under which the state can keep such plants open and still meet the EPA's proposal for Montana to cut carbon dioxide emissions 21 percent by 2030.

Emissions, he said, could instead be reduced through various combinations of more renewable energy, greater efficiencies in homes and power plants and technologies to capture and burn the carbon dioxide from burning coal.

But the Democratic governor's claims, based on a state Department of Environmental Quality analysis, are being greeted skeptically in Colstrip. Colstrip Mayor Rose Hanser told The Associated Press more renewables would mean less room for coal, even as improvements to make coal plants more efficient drove up the cost of electricity from Colstrip.

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"I think it tried to paint a pretty picture of dissembling our economic base," Hanser said. "The public is being burnt on both ends. I do not see this as a healthy business choice for Montana. I see us paying a lot of money for no benefits."

Hanser also noted Bullock's proposed options don't consider the potential for emission cuts in other states to impact power plants outside Montana that rely on its huge coal reserves.

State officials acknowledge many of the costs of different scenarios presented by Bullock are unknown. That includes the expense of installing still-unproven carbon capture technologies, said Garrett Martin, a DEQ energy analyst.

But Martin said the costs of other options, such as more renewable wind energy and improved energy efficiency at home, are better known. Those would yield long-term benefits projected to total hundreds of billions of dollars by 2030, according to the DEQ.

"We're going to be able to achieve a lot of low-cost, low-hanging fruit," Martin said.

EPA draft rules released in June give Montana flexibility to decide how to meet its share of the nationwide reduction in carbon dioxide levels. States have until 2017 to come up with their own emission-reduction plans and until 2018 if they partner with other states.

Representatives of PPL Montana, which operates and co-owns the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, in 2008 projected it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to install the equipment needed to capture carbon and store it underground to prevent its release to the atmosphere.

However, those projections were based on Colstrip capturing as much as 90 percent of the carbon dioxide.

The DEQ analysis relied on by Bullock said reducing the coal plant's emissions even 20 percent would go a long way toward meeting the Obama administration's goal.