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Colstrip Power Plant Owners Challenge New Laws Targeting Plant Contract Terms, Arbitration

Colstrip power plant
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Colstrip Steam Electric Station

Two new Montana laws that aim to keep the Colstrip coal-fired power plant open and running sparked a lawsuit from plant owners who say the government is intruding on private business dealings.

Colstrip power plant owners headquartered in Washington State and Oregon filed a complaint in federal court Tuesday alleging two bills passed by Montana lawmakers and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte late Monday illegally stepped into a private business contract involving the coal power plant.

“It is unconstitutional. It has a chilling impact on business when you’ve got a legislature rewriting the terms of a very long standing business agreement,” said Steve Secrist, the general counsel for Puget Sound Energy.

The four electric utilities bringing the suit, Puget Sound Energy, Avista, PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric, are located in states phasing out of coal power on their energy grids by 2025 and 2030.

The utilities brought the suit against Talen Montana and NorthWestern Energy, which are based in states without those plans

The laws in dispute require Colstrip power plant owners to unanimously agree before closing or withdrawing from the plant and compel owners to conduct Colstrip-related arbitration in Montana.

NorthWestern Energy lobbyist David Hoffman spoke in favor of the bills during legislative hearings and reiterated that NorthWestern plans to stay with the plant until 2042.

"We intend to operate it as long as it useful and economic,” Hoffman says.

Before the bills were signed into law, arbitration between the companies had already begun in Washington State to clarify the contract terms and determine some of the same issues lawmakers put into the bills according to court papers and information in a NorthWestern Energy quarterly report.

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