Just two days after a similar legislation died, a Senate committee approved an amendment that would allow NorthWestern Energy to charge customers for replacement power when it shuts down or upgrades equipment at its Colstrip facility.
On Friday morning in the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, proposed a last-minute amendment to House Bill 695 sponsored by Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis. Loge’s bill simply allowed for parties to enter arbitration to try to resolve public water supply disputes before they went to court.
But Ankney’s amendment requires the Public Service Commission to allow NorthWestern Energy to charge customers more if the company needs to shut down Colstrip Unit 3 or 4, or reduce power to test equipment or make repairs for environmental compliance with the Clean Air Act.
It also says the state cannot deny NorthWestern Energy or other utilities a permit for a nuclear power facility even though there’s no permanent repository for nuclear waste.
“This is very specific. This ain’t if they blow a boiler tube and go down,” Ankney said. “They have to be able to have these provisions for the case where it’s not their case they went out of compliance. It was a buildup of a lot of different procedures over the years, probably since they started those units.”
A few committee members objected to the amendment on procedural grounds.
Sen. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, pointed out that the Montana Constitution has a single-subject rule that requires bills to have only one subject clearly expressed in the title. Adding Ankney’s unrelated amendment to a water bill violates that rule. Pomnichowski said there was a House bill that the amendment would fit better.
Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said the amendment language was pulled from SB 379, which died in the House Energy committee on Wednesday. She said because SB379 didn’t pass, inserting the language in SB695 now is out of order.
SB 379 would have allowed NorthWestern Energy buy out its West Coast co-owners of the Colstrip plant, leaving Montana ratepayers to pay for the remaining years of coal power and then potentially for Colstrip’s shutdown and cleanup. It received huge opposition with legislators receiving more than 4,000 phone and email messages.
Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, said Ankney’s amendment should be brought before the Legislative Rules committee. Joint Rule 4070 says a bill may not be introduced after a House has rejected a bill to designed to accomplish the same purpose.
Chairman Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, said that would be at the discretion of the committee but no concerns had been raised with him.
In 2018, Talen Energy had to shut down Colstrip Units 3 and 4 down to fix the scrubbers after it was found that particulate matter was exceeding the federal Mercury & Air Toxics Standard. Those units have since been shuttered. Between July and September 2018, NorthWestern Energy had to purchase power from the market and the PSC rejected a request to pass that cost onto ratepayers.
The PSC has twice rejected the company’s request to charge customers to recover costs.
Cohenour said business decisions should be borne by the company. She questioned whether customers would be on the hook for reduced generation caused by market forces pushing NorthWestern Energy away from coal-power generation.
“This (amendment) disallows the Public Service Commission, whose job it is to be on the side of the ratepayers, from saying no to some of the costs,” Cohenour said. “This is a guarantee that what happened in Texas, that the company can roll that and charge all of those folks for the stuff that they were to blame for. And I don’t think this should be on the shoulders of the ratepayers.”
Ankney said NorthWestern Energy will be buying replacement power as Colstrip winds down, but the PSC could still have say over that.
“I think we can read a bogyman into this bill, but it just ain’t there,” Ankney said.
The Republican committee members passed the amendment and the bill on a 7-5 party-line vote.
“We talk a lot about skin in the game. This bill would require no skin in the game from the company,” Flowers said. “If they screw up, all that cost gets passed on to the ratepayer. (NorthWestern Energy) has no responsibility in this. By what logic does that make sense?”
This isn’t Ankney’s only last-minute maneuver after the death of HB 379.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.