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Missoula County, city file to intervene in pre-approval of NorthWestern gas plant

A liquefied natural gas export facility under construction near Quintana, Texas in 2018. (Courthouse News)

Missoula County on Thursday agreed to file a motion to intervene in a Montana Public Service Commission process that would give NorthWestern Energy clearance through pre-approval to invest in more fossil fuel resources, namely new natural gas plants.

The decision to intervene, made just days after another group filed two complaints in Missoula County District Court challenging the same process, includes both the city and county of Missoula.

“The city and county have an interest in the matter given the cost and risks these decisions may pose to NorthWestern Energy ratepayers, which include our governments as well as the majority of city and county households and businesses,” said Diana Maneta, the county’s energy conservation coordinator.

Montana’s pre-approval statute says the Public Service Commission can give utilities like NorthWestern pre-approval for energy sources prior to them ever acquiring the resource or starting construction on new generating plants.

NorthWestern last month announced its plans to build a $250 million natural gas plant in Laurel. A company announcement said reciprocating internal combustion engines would burn natural gas to generate 175 megawatts by Jan 2024.

The city and county of Missoula look to intervene in the process, saying it will hurt ratepayers across the state and commit Montana to a future reliant upon fossil fuels, even as the rest of the nation moves toward cleaner renewables.

NorthWestern’s pursuit of fossil fuels also contradicts the city and county’s efforts to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2030. Other municipalities in the state have adopted similar goals, though the state itself has not taken such steps.

“We have an interest in the resource decisions made at the state level that will impact our ability to achieve that goal,” Maneta said. “Any proposal to develop new fossil fuel resources deserves serious scrutiny at this particular moment in history when the science is clear that we must phase fossil fuels out entirely in order to avoid catastrophic changes to our climate.”

Company spokeswoman Jo Dee Black has said NorthWestern estimates its energy deficit at 555 megawatts in Montana, making the gas plant and others necessary.

“We have a critical capacity deficit in a portfolio that serves our Montana customers when we have peak demand,” Black told the Missoula Current on Thursday. “NorthWestern relies on the market for between 40 % t0 50% of the energy needed to meet that demand. Those market prices are very volatile.”

But PSC consultant Synapse Energy Economics analyzed NorthWestern’s computer modeling and assumptions and concluded that it was set up to create an over-reliance on fossil fuel generation.

Maneta said the city and county’s push to intervene in the case comes with no strings attached.

“It doesn’t commit us to any course of action in particular,” she said. “It gives us the option to closely follow the proceedings, to pose questions to the PSC and submit our own testimony. All of that will occur over a period of several months.”

With parallel goals of addressing the climate crisis and reducing carbon emissions, the city and county of Missoula, along with the cities of Bozeman and Helena, formally adopted a joint agreement in February to work with NorthWestern in developing a green tariff.

The monopoly utility’s plans to seek approval for new fossil fuel sources has sounded alarms among those cities, along with groups pushing for a cleaner energy future.

Armed with a new report comparing various energy scenarios, Missoula-based 350 Montana this week filed two complaints challenging the PSC process giving NorthWestern the leeway to invest in fossil fuel.

They argue that doing so will place the utility’s customers at a disadvantage.

“This new gas plant that NorthWestern proposes will substantially raise rates,” said Monica Tranel, one of 350 Montana’s attorneys. “And as the 350 Montana study points out, it’s going in the wrong direction.”

The deadline to file a motion to intervene was Thursday. The city and county will each contribute $15,000 to Miller Law to represent the city and county before the PSC. The county will pay the invoices and bill the city for its share.