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Montana Committee Advances Bill Allowing Utilities To Recover Power Costs From Customers

The Sidney Coal Co.'s Coal Preparation Plant in Sidney, Ky., in 2006.
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Colstrip Steam Electric Station pictures on Oct. 2, 2020.

A Montana legislative committee Friday advanced a bill that borrows language from part of a previously tabled policy and now could allow electric utilities to pass certain replacement power costs onto customers without regulators setting the terms.

The amendment, made to a bill to generally revise environmental laws, would permit NorthWestern Energy to charge its customers for power it buys to compensate for outages or reduced generation at the Colstrip coal-fired power plant — but only if those costs are associated with environmental testing or compliance with environmental law or permit requirements.

Republican Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip brought the amendment.

The change to House Bill 695 would also prevent electric utility regulators from denying cost collection from customers or setting terms of the cost recovery to balance utility and customer interests.

Democratic Sen. Jill Cohenour of East Helena spoke against the bill.

“If there are issues that come up where they have to shut down and fix things, that should be born by the company and not the ratepayers,” Cohenour said.

NorthWestern is a part owner in the Colstrip coal-fired power plant, which partly shuttered over several months in 2018 to address emissions that exceeded federal air quality standards.

The power plant had another outage in 2013 due to a malfunction. Both times the state Public Service Commission decided that the power plant owners could have avoided the outages and denied NorthWestern’s request to pass millions of dollars in costs onto customers.

Sen. Ankney shared a different interpretation of the owners’ actions in 2018.

“When they tested their air quality equipment, they felt they was going out of compliance, so they shut down the plant down to fix the problem,” Ankney said.

The bill carried by Republican Rep. Denley Loge of St. Regis initially would have created a state fee for submitting public comment on environmental impact statements, but now includes elements of Senate Bill 379, which was tabled Wednesday.

The elements of the bill that are moving forward do not include a proposal to pass costs to customers if NorthWestern were to buy an added share in the power plant.

The approved amendment also prevents the state from denying a utility’s application for a nuclear power facility based on whether or not there’s a national disposal area for nuclear waste.

HB 695 now heads to the senate floor for debate.

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