Politics and touch choices consume a Montana coal town. As the outside world pushes for cleaner energy, Colstrip pushes back.
BY: ANDREW GRAHAM
PHOTOS COURTESY OF: ANDREW GRAHAM
On a late February evening, cars and pickup trucks fill the high school parking lot in Colstrip, Montana, as local residents arrive for a town hall meeting. With two main employers in this town of 2,300—a coal mine and the power plant that burns its product—everyone knows everyone. Camaraderie is high, but today morale, perhaps, is less so.
Before entering the high school auditorium there are two papers to sign. One list is for attendance, signature requested; the other is for those who’d consider joining a class-action lawsuit, signature optional. “Somebody tossed out the idea that if all of us owned a bunch of houses that are worth zero, we might want to try this,” the man taking signatures explains.
The measure is preemptive—it’s early days yet—but residents in Colstrip have a right to be concerned about property values. The town’s livelihood is based wholly on coal, and the picture for coal is not looking good.
By the time Duane Ankney steps up to speak, the auditorium is nearly two-thirds full. Ankney’s been Colstrip’s Republican state senator for two years, and served in the Montana House of Representatives for eight years before that. With a thick walrus mustache and self-pride in being a “straight shooter,” Ankney pulls no punches with reporters or his constituents. He starts tonight’s speech by wishing out loud that he could have been senator in the 1990s. It’s a nostalgia he’s repeated elsewhere. “I wish it were 20 years ago,” Ankney said in a recent speech, “when we worried about getting coal from point A to B.” Before politics Ankney spent 34 years mining coal, retiring as a superintendent from Colstrip’s Rosebud mine.
But while Colstrip was busy mining and burning coal, “groups were already working against us,” Ankney tells the crowd. His speech does not mention competition from low natural gas prices or the struggling export market for coal, but instead describes powerful political forces bent on coal’s destruction. And Colstrip’s.
“None of these groups, none of them, are a friend of the working man and woman. They are your enemy. They’ll take your job and they’ll take the food off your table,” Ankney says, referring chiefly to the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information
Center. Both environmental groups supported the passage of a recent Washington state Senate bill, SB 6248, which carries a poignant threat to Colstrip’s livelihood.
The power plant here is made up of four energy-generating units, and only a fraction of one unit is owned by a Montana utility. The vast majority of the ownership rests out of state and thus largely out of the hands of Montana lawmakers like Ankney. The Washington bill allows state utility Puget Sound Electric—which owns half of units 1 and 2—to begin planning for those units’ closure. SB 6248 sailed through both houses of Congress and was signed into law April 1 by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, despite Montana Governor Steve Bullock asking him to veto it. Both governors are Democrats.
A THREATENED WAY OF LIFE
The U.S. Energy Information Agency predicts that 2016 will be the first year energy from coal-fired power plants will be surpassed by energy from natural gas on the nation’s electric grid. The price of coal has fallen 62 percent since 2011, and Peabody Coal, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, filed for U.S. bankruptcy protection in April. Nationally, coal country is feeling the trend, and Montana has not been spared. Arch Coal, facing bankruptcy, announced in March that it would suspend a long-running application for a large strip mine and close its Billings, Montana office. The Bull Mountain coal mine, north of Colstrip, laid off 20 percent of its employees in December, and owners worry about further financial turmoil.
Washington state is also reacting to a global desire to shift away from fossil fuels. Last December, President Obama joined 200 other countries when he committed the U.S. to deep carbon cuts at the United Nation’s climate change summit in Paris. As the state’s biggest single carbon emitter, Colstrip became front and center of the discussion as Montana considered the steep emissions cuts mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, a cornerstone of meeting Obama’s global commitment.
In early February, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a controversial stay on the Clean Power Plan, it seemed to spell an end to that particular threat to Colstrip. Then, later that month, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died, leaving the court split ideologically, and a majority ruling against the EPA far from inevitable. The Clean Power Plan, though stalled, remains on the table with its next court hearing coming in June, after this magazine went to press.
During the town hall meeting Ankney wears a blazer and stiff white cowboy hat, but a few hours earlier he sported a jean shirt and baseball cap, looking road-weary as he sipped coffee and greeted fellow patrons in the Colstrip Subway restaurant. Although he’s not happy about it, Ankney says he’s confident that one way or another, “we’re gonna get a goddamn Clean Power Plan.” At the moment, however, he’s focused on Puget Sound Energy and units 1 and 2. He was on the road lobbying for more worker protection provisions before the bill passed, crisscrossing Montana and traveling once to Olympia to testify before the Washington Senate. Now he’s looking for a way the plants could keep running without the Washington utility.
He worries about the younger workers, far from a pensioned retirement, who may have to leave Colstrip if jobs dry up. They face rougher transitions than Ankney’s generation. “I could just sit out there on that place of mine and shoot wild turkeys,” he says. Young people who have invested in the town by buying homes and starting families face the loss of stability, not just a way of life.
“The people of this city are not going to just roll over and resign themselves to being the newest victims of short- sighted anti-coal agendas.”
Two such young residents, Ashley Dennehy and Lori Shaw, are rising to the occasion via online activism. They started a Facebook page and then a website for an organization called Colstrip United. The goal, Shaw said, was first to organize the town politically, but has now widened to informing the outside world and fighting “the lies and ignorance surrounding coal with positivity and solid facts,” according to their mission statement.
Their rhetoric can be fierce. The following quote, on both Colstrip United’s website and Facebook page, defines how they see their struggle:
“The people of this city are not going to just roll over and resign themselves to being the newest victims of short-sighted anti-coal agendas. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the MEIC (Montana Environmental Information Center) don’t care about who they hurt as long as they get their way. No amount of human damage would make these radical groups see the error of their ways.”
Shaw says images of Colstrip smokestacks on cloudy days that mimic smog are one example of the misinformation she hopes to combat. The Sierra Club does indeed have such an advertisement, circulating Seattle on hybrid-electric busses. “Dirty coal from Montana or clean energy from Washington?” it asks, depicting Colstrip smokestacks on a dirty white background next to images of wind turbines framed by a clear blue sky.
The smoke from Colstrip’s stacks is visible from well outside town, at least during peak energy-use hours on colder mornings. By midafternoon on the day of Ankney’s meeting, however, the visible output was down to a puff from just one stack, like that emanating from the smoldering tip of a cigar. Montana’s big sky was as blue as the clean energy portion of the Sierra Club ad.
Lori Shaw is 24 years old and worried she’ll lose her home. People think Colstrip is comprised of a wealthy older population, which couldn’t be further from the truth, she says. Shaw grew up in Colstrip, and met her husband Walt when he moved there for high school. Walt, 26, works as an accountant for the coal mine, which has one customer: the Colstrip power plant. “If the two units get shut down, he’s a low-level employee, he’ll probably have to go,” Shaw says. The two are concerned about keeping up with their mortgage, finding themselves unable to plan for a future knowing the town that they grew up and invested in could dry up.
It’s easy to see why the Shaws would want to stay. The rolling prairie leading into Colstrip gives way south of town to a badlands country of canyons and sandstone buttes. There is peace and quiet here, and sunsets worth settling in for.
In Rosebud County where 20 percent of people live below the poverty line, Colstrip’s median household income is around $75,000. Proceeds from coal have paid for a parks and trails system, top-notch schools and a golf course residents can use for free. In 2004, Sports Illustrated named it Montana’s best sports town for its commitment to recreation and school athletics. The high school wrestling team’s state championship in February is still a ready topic for conversation. More recently, Colstrip was named the safest town in the state, based on an evaluation of crime statistics for cities with populations over 1,500. But 80 percent of the town’s jobs come from the plant and mine, and without coal there’s no economic reason for the town to exist. Not currently, anyway.
In the Clean Power Plan, the EPA projects that reducing CO2 will result in benefits of $25 billion to $45 billion by 2030. But that is on a national and even global scale, after taking into account the many ways in which unchecked global warming could affect public health and productivity. The damage something like the Clean Power Plan or Washington state’s SB 6248 will have on Colstrip carries much higher visibility in a regional political fight.
It’s an election year, and Montana Republican Greg Gianforte is running for his party’s nomination against sitting Governor Steve Bullock in November. Gianforte has used energy issues to paint Bullock as a job- killer, and associate him with Obama’s “war on coal.” On March 14, Gianforte held a press conference about the importance of Colstrip to Montana’s economy. Flanking him for effect were the girls of Colstrip United.
THE POWER PLAY
Ultimately, the Washington Utilities Commission will decide if and when Units 1 and 2 at Colstrip will be decommissioned. The Washington bill simply allows Puget Sound Electric to begin saving money to pay the costs of closing units 1 and 2, which the utility estimates could cost as much as $195 million. Originally, the bill said PSE’s fund could not be accessed until December 31, 2022, but Governor Inslee vetoed that section.
There won’t be any final decisions coming this year, though; the Washington utilities commission postponed hearings on the matter until 2017.
A more pressing question may be Talen Energy, a Pennsylvania-based company that runs the plant’s day-to-day operations for all other owners, and also owns the other half of units 1 and 2. Given pending regulations and the low price of natural gas, Talen currently has little to gain from its stake in Colstrip, according to a recent report from the financial services company UBS Securities.
While evaluating all possibilities, Talen remains focused on running the plant, said company spokesman Todd Martin. “What we won’t do is lose that focus or expend resources speculating on what comes next,” he said. “It’s simply premature.” Talen will not discuss business decisions in the press, he added, a strategy consistent with the company’s guarded nature in media outlets since Colstrip started making news with the Clean Power Plan.
But others speculate that Talen, which is a private company and not a state- regulated utility like PSE, is looking to pull out of Colstrip. As evidence they point to a failed 2013 effort by Talen to sell its Colstrip assets to Northwestern Energy.
Two such people are well aware their advice is likely unwelcome in Colstrip. Enter Doug Howell, a campaign representative from the Sierra Club, and Anne Hedges, lead lobbyist of the Montana Environmental Information Center.
They say that Talen is the more unreliable partner, and as a private company could walk away at any time without the strict cleanup responsibilities that the Washington legislature has mandated to PSE. Both Howell and Hedges think the Washington bill is about as good a deal as Colstrip will get, given the overarching picture for coal.
“I think everybody feels now that the retirement for Colstrip 1 and 2 is inevitable, and it’s the traditional economics that are driving that,” Howell says.
The Sierra Club started looking at how Washington state could exit the plant four or five years ago, according to Howell. Although he couches the PSE bill as an economic decision to protect Washington ratepayers, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has claimed responsibility for shuttering coal power plants and blocking new ones across the country. The organization makes no secret that its end goal is to take coal off the nation’s electrical grid.
“There’s no way that you can be responsible for all your climate emissions in Washington unless you look at the power you’re importing into the state,” Howell says.
“I think everybody feels now that the retirement for Colstrip 1 and 2 is inevitable, and it’s the traditional economics that are driving that.”
Coal power makes up around 14 percent of Washington’s energy portfolio, and half of that coal energy comes from Montana. The rest currently is derived from the Transalta coal plant in Centralia, Washington, which is also on its way out. Howell thinks that’s somewhere Colstrip could look to see how a coal town can transition away from a one-horse economy. “We want to take care of the Colstrip workers,” he says.
The first unit in Centralia is slated to go offline by 2020, with the second shutting down five years later as the result of a deal between Transalta, environmentalists and labor unions. Transalta invested $55 million into a transition fund for Centralia. Twenty million will go to education and retraining coal workers, while the other $35 million will support the development of clean energy and energy efficiency projects. Meanwhile, the company is looking for opportunities to transition the coal plants to natural gas, whose methane emissions are also a potent greenhouse gas, but not yet in the crosshairs of those advocating action on climate change.
If those in Colstrip aren’t proactive, Howell says, Talen could exit stage right with no transition strategy. And that could leave workers abruptly out of jobs and without an established cleanup plan.
MEIC’s Anne Hedges, too, would like to see a planned transition in Montana. An opportunity exists for new electricity sources in Colstrip, she says. “The wind blows out there, [and] they have transmission lines.”
Although Hedges herself can be fiery in the press, she says the politically heated rhetoric is unfortunate, which in the long run may block Colstrip residents from finding the smoothest path forward.
“I think Duane Ankney is harming more than he’s helping, because he’s not giving them a realistic perspective on the state of affairs,” she says.
Colstrip residents need someone they can trust to begin a conversation about how to best create a long-term transition to a new, more diversified economy, Hedges says. She knows that person can’t be her, or “anybody who has been working in climate change.”
People in the town, including Ankney, are largely skeptical about climate change. They like to compare carbon emissions from the power plant to those from Montana’s summer forest fires, in order to make a point about coal concerns being overblown. A statistic on the Colstrip United website says it would take the plant in Colstrip more than 1,600 years to release as many particulate emissions as one season of Montana wildfires.
But particulate emissions are essentially smoke, says David Klemp, and are not the same as CO2. Klemp, who heads the Air Resources Bureau of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, says he also heard a claim that power plants would take more than 100 years to emit as much CO2 as a summer of forest fires, but wanted to test the theory.
Klemp’s department took data from the 2012 wildfire season, one of the worst in recent years, and compared it to Colstrip emissions for CO2. That year the four units of the power plant released 14.76 million tons of CO2. The DEQ is still missing wildfire data for October, but so far found that the 2012 season emitted just under half the CO2 of Colstrip. Even with the October data, Klemp says, wildfire CO2 emissions from a devastating fire year won’t come anywhere close to what Colstrip burns annually.
Washington’s bill 6248 offers a good starting point for transitioning the town away from coal, Hedges says, adding that the cleanup and environmental reclamation process will keep jobs in Colstrip even if units 1 and 2 get turned off. “Aren’t we happy that somebody’s going to have funding to clean this place up?” she asks.
“… I’m not gonna apologize to anybody for the way we make a living.”
Not in Colstrip they aren’t. “One positive would be to get Washington the hell out of Montana,” Ankney said to rousing applause during the town hall meeting. He feels betrayed by the Washington state legislators, whom he’s been meeting with since last summer. He asked for provisions that would more directly protect Colstrip workers, including a $55 million fund similar to Centralia’s. The bill, however, focuses on decommissioning and remediation costs, and does not specify funds for retraining workers.
Ankney is clearly a man in the fight of his life. Together with ally Jim Keane, a Montana senator from Butte, Ankney’s been hoping to drum up new customers to replace PSE. “He’s put a lot of miles on his car,” says Keane, a Democrat who spent 11 years in Colstrip with the mine engineers’ labor union. “Frankly, so have I.”
Given the lack of provisions for workers in SB 6248, the two senators are exploring the possibility of legal action against Puget Sound Energy. “Senator Ankney and I are very certain—you want to do this to us, there’s going to be one hell of a price to pay,” Keane says.
Recently, Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock echoed the call to keep the units open no matter what PSE and Talen do. After Washington’s governor signed the bill, Bullock called for the creation of a committee on Colstrip, with the goal of exploring “alternative ownership” to keep the plant running and its jobs open.
“We’re concerned about the community, the citizens, and the jobs. This process will ultimately help develop a strategy to make sure that any impact on the community is minimal,” Bullock said in an April interview with Mountain Outlaw. “But we also need to be looking at our overall energy future.” Solar and wind energy both have high potential in Montana, he added, and hydroelectric energy currently plays a strong role in the state’s energy portfolio.
Although some of Bullock’s decisions seem inconsistent—such as calling for action on climate change while also supporting the lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan—the governor said the choice of burning coal versus arresting climate change was a false one, citing future technologies that could burn coal in a cleaner fashion or trap the carbon emissions. He’d like Montana to be at the forefront of developing those technologies, although the details of how are still vague. Bullock cited possible cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy as well as energy programs at Montana State University in Bozeman. He also pointed out that although the Clean Power Plan set steep targets for Montana, 30 percent of the nation’s energy portfolio remains in coal.
“Tomorrow is going to look different than today, and I’d much rather try to put Montana in the driver’s seat … than completely be reliant on companies in Pennsylvania and [elsewhere],” Bullock said.
Driving south down empty Highway 39 the first signs of Colstrip, before the smoke begins to show over the ridge, are long lines of empty, aging boxcars curving out of sight along the tracks. The town hasn’t shipped coal since 2005, but it used to deliver to Minnesota, Wisconsin and other population centers around the West.
It’s an old Montana story—the product is here but the buying power is elsewhere. Duane Ankney knows it, Dick Barrett and Anne Hedges know it, and Jim Keane from Butte, Montana, once the richest copper mining town in America, certainly knows it.
Colstrip and Montana can either take a pragmatic look at its future as an energy producer, Hedges says, or “let other people decide what the energy system will look like and hope for scraps.” Ankney, too, wants his town’s destiny within its own hands. “I’m not ready to give up,” he said toward the end of his February speech, his coal miner’s voice rasping with emotion. “And I’m not gonna apologize to anybody for the way we make a living.”
Meanwhile, life in Colstrip goes on and the plant continues to burn at full capacity whenever it’s needed. On a brilliant Thursday earlier this year the sky is clear blue and the town is quiet, hard at work. The labor union at the power plant is preparing to renegotiate at the end of a four- year contract. Business as usual.
At the mine, huge excavators called draglines clear loose earth from above black coal seams. As the battle over Montana’s energy future wages on, the plant still needs coal. Every five minutes it burns 100 tons, the equivalent load of one abandoned boxcar.
Over the last two years Andrew Graham has covered energy and land-use issues in Montana, the West and abroad. This spring he earned his master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Montana in Missoula.