Mont. energy plan straddles line between coal, renewables

Source: Emily Holden, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2016

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat facing re-election challenges, released an energy blueprint yesterday that he said is aimed at protecting coal jobs while embracing renewable power and energy efficiency.

The state holds more coal reserves than any other — making the future of the energy sector a big election-year issue (ClimateWire, March 10). Montana is also grappling with what to do with its large Colstrip coal plant, which is facing environmental regulations and financial pressures as some co-owners eye exit strategies.

The Colstrip plant provides $104 million in state and local tax collections and keeps people employed, Bullock’s plan notes.

“But there’s little doubt that change is on the horizon, driven by historically low natural gas prices, flat domestic energy demand, regulatory concerns and changing consumer demands,” it says. “And then there are concerns related to climate change. We Montanans know it is happening because we see it. Moreover, the financial markets are strongly reacting to it.”

Bullock, who acknowledges climate change is real but is not a fan of U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas standards for power plants, has come under fire for looking for ways to comply with the regulation before the Supreme Court put it on hold.

Ron Catlett, a spokesman for Bullock’s Republican challenger, Greg Gianforte, said yesterday the governor has “yet to stand strong for the interests of Montana.” He also chided Bullock for not taking a stronger stance against the Clean Power Plan.

But Anne Hedges, director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said she was happy to see the energy plan.

“It’s about time we finally have some leadership on this issue,” Hedges said. “There are some things in here I don’t agree with, but the vast majority of it is a step in the right direction.”

A path forward for coal and renewables?

Bullock’s plan looks at ways to protect coal and boost renewables, although the strategies are light on details.

For example, he wants to host Chinese and U.S. officials to discuss the “shared challenges and opportunities for coal development in a changing world.”

The governor wants to lower tax rates for pollution control equipment and try to advance carbon capture and sequestration by providing tax incentives for its use in enhanced oil recovery. He would also advocate for more support and funding from the federal government.

Hedges said focusing on carbon capture and sequestration is misguided and “an unfortunate distraction.”

“It’s what everybody feels like they have to say,” she said, but “it’s not a viable technology at this point.”

Bullock said he wants to “streamline” the process for environmental permits and “push back on federal government overreach when necessary.”

But the blueprint would also try to double solar power development and cut overall electricity use 10 percent by 2025.

It’s unclear from the 26-page plan how Bullock would encourage that shift. While he says he would “support and protect” the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) by continuing to oppose any legislative attacks against it, he would not try to increase requirements for clean power.

Adding grid capacity

The Republican-controlled Legislature has fought against the RPS. But Jeff Fox, state policy manager for Renewable Northwest, said wind power in particular is gaining political support across the aisle because it creates jobs and adds to tax revenues for local government.

Fox said Bullock’s solar goal sounds easily achievable, either through protecting existing policy or by developing more under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act.

Bullock also wants to work with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Bonneville Power Administration to bolster Montana power lines so the state could sell more electricity to out-of-state markets, which Hedges called “the most important piece of this whole document.”

Fox agreed, saying, “In the long run, if we’re going to replace the economic activity from coal burning in the state, we’re going to need additional capacity on transmission lines beyond what we have today.”

To achieve that, Montana would need to work with the federal government and surrounding states.

“Ultimately, big transmission projects need the attention and support of federal agencies and the political support of neighboring states,” Fox said.

States in the Pacific Northwest should be interested in Montana’s wind power because it could help them meet peak winter electricity needs, Fox said. It could also help California when solar production levels are low, he said.

Bullock also proposes a $5 million revolving fund for schools and local governments for energy conservation projects and a program for low-income weatherization and energy-saving work. He would recommend changes so upgraded dams that harness more power can qualify for the state’s RPS. And he would direct state agencies to evaluate the power use of state buildings.

Reporter Elizabeth Harball contributed.