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Rosebud County locals weigh in on the economy at Colstrip roundtable

The Colstrip coal-fired power plant in October 2020.
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio/File photo
The Colstrip coal-fired power plant in October 2020.

Governor Greg Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines held a roundtable last week in southeastern Montana at Westmoreland’s Rosebud Coal Mine in Colstrip. While there, Rosebud County representatives weighed in on the economic state of coal in the region.

At the roundtable, Steve Gross, with a local union for the construction and mining industry spoke about the layoff of nearly 20 workers from Westmoreland’s Absaloka coal mine more than a month ago, around the same time the mine announced its last shipment to its primary customer.

“That puts a lot of uncertainty in my position, puts a lot of uncertainty in the position of the miners over there, where they're gonna go,” Gross said.

The roundtable focused on new regulations aimed at cracking down on greenhouse gas emissions, which are just the most recent existential threat to coal communities following years of power plant retirements, mine closures and layoffs nationwide.

According to the Energy Information Administration, Montana's coal production declined by nearly a third from 2018 to 2022, predating the Biden Administration. Also in 2022, electricity from renewables passed coal for the first time.

Rosebud County Commissioner Ed Joiner said the county’s traditionally coal-reliant economy is seeing an influx of wind energy - like the Clearwater Wind farm.

“It’s helped out on our tax base,” he told YPR. “It’s just hard when you’re a one-horse town and somebody brings another horse in, and it was pretty tough for a while, but it’s mellowed out now, and people are looking at all-of-the-above energy farms.”

Meanwhile, Jim Atchison with the Southeastern Montana Development Corporation said the community of Colstrip is investigating ways to diversify its economy, including by reprocessing waste from the Colstrip power plant.

“Rare earth element extraction from waste material - ash that is left over - I think is pretty cheap, and we’re hoping that happens in the next couple of years,” said Atchison.

Talen Energy said last year that it’s open to repurposing waste at the plant if it’s cost-effective.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.