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Montana 2021 Legislature

Montana Utility Regulators Oppose Bill Guaranteeing Replacement Power Reimbursement

Correction 04/28/21: This story has been updated to correct the bill number. YPR News regrets the error.

Montana electric utility regulators are opposing a bill pending consideration on the Senate floor that would allow electric utilities to pass certain replacement power costs onto customers without regulators setting the terms.

The Montana Public Service Commission at its business meeting Tuesday voted unanimously to oppose a bill that would enable NorthWestern Energy to charge customers for power it buys on the open market if the Colstrip coal-fired power plant closes temporarily to meet environmental law.

House Bill 695 as amended would remove regulators’ ability to deny the request or set terms that balance utility and consumer interests. Republican Commissioner Tony O’Donnell of Billings said the implication of the bill upset him.

“If it was out of their hands, of course we’re going to treat it fairly,” O’Donnell said.

Republican Rep. Denley Loge of St. Regis sponsored HB 695, which started as a revision to environmental law and included a provision that would have allowed state agencies to collect a fee from people and groups providing public comment on environmental impact statements.

Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip proposed the amendment for replacement power costs, as well as a section to prevent 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.

The amendment to HB 695 takes language from another of Ankney’s bills, Senate Bill 379, which would also have restricted the PSC’s ratemaking abilities and which the PSC also opposed.

The PSC last yearfound that Colstrip plant owners could have avoided a partial outage in 2018 when the owners shut part of the plant to address emissions that exceeded federal pollution standards. The PSC declined to let NorthWestern tap customers for millions of dollars in replacement power costs.