Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Montana Republicans’ displeasure with new standards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forcing coal-fired power plants like Colstrip to reduce their emissions and pollution came to a head Tuesday when Rep. Ryan Zinke, western Montana’s Republican congressman, clashed with EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan at a committee hearing.

But Republicans weren’t the only ones pushing Regan and the EPA for answers this week, as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, also told Regan on Wednesday that Colstrip needs more flexibility under the rules.

The EPA announced last week four new final rules surrounding coal-fired power plants, including one that would require them to control 90% of their carbon pollution and another that updates mercury and air toxics standards to reduce the emissions limit for mercury by 70% and for other toxic metals, including nickel, arsenic and lead, by 67%.

Regan and the White House lauded the updates to the standards as a way to protect communities from pollution and as part of their effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while trying to push power companies to use more clean energy.

The rules note that Colstrip has the only two coal-fired units in the country that do not use modern technology — electrostatic precipitators and fabric filters — to control its particulate matter emissions, has struggled to meet existing standards, and is “the only facility where the EPA estimates the current controls would be unable to meet a lower (filterable particulate matter) limit.”

The EPA estimates the new standards will, by 2028, reduce emissions of fine particulate matter by 770 tons, reduce mercury emissions by 1,000 pounds, and stop thousands of other tons of greenhouse gases from being sent into the atmosphere.

Montana environmental groups cheered the updated standards, saying they will force Colstrip to meet pollution levels already being met by most other plants and cut down on the amount of toxic emissions released by the plant.

Montana’s top Republican officials, already unhappy with efforts to change the state’s energy sources and most climate-related policies attempted or implemented by the Biden administration, quickly last week called the rules an attack on Colstrip and Montana’s energy industry.

So did NorthWestern Energy, the monopoly energy company that currently holds about 15% of the plant’s 1480-megawatt capacity but will double that in 2026 when it acquires Avista’s ownership stake.

NorthWestern Energy CEO Brian Bird said the new rules threaten the company’s ability to continue generating power for Montanans during the winter and would increase its costs, which would be passed on to customers. The company said it was considering ways to challenge the standards.

“The inability to utilize Colstrip in the time frames contemplated by these rules will likely push our already stressed transmission system beyond its capability to import enough power to serve customers during critical periods. The reality is there may not be supply available to import for our Montana customers during critical times,” Bird said in a statement. “…The EPA’s decision puts reliable energy service at the most affordable rates at risk for our Montana customers, as well as the entire region.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte called the new standards another part of what he says is Biden’s “war on affordable and reliable energy.” Based off a report from NorthWestern Energy, the governor has said that shutting down Colstrip would cost Montanans $55 million a year for the next 20 years.

The standards also received pushback from Montana’s Republican officials in Washington, Sen. Steve Daines, Zinke and Rep. Matt Rosendale, who likewise called the plan unrealistic and an attack on Montana.

Regan says Colstrip ‘cheating the system’ in limiting emissions

Zinke continued to press their messaging at Tuesday’s House Appropriations Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing, peppering Regan with quick questions and cutting him off several times as he tried to answer, and repeatedly saying the new standards would cost Montanans another $1,000 a year if Colstrip was not operating its coal-fired stations.

Zinke claimed, without citing where the figure came from, that Montanans’ family costs have gone up $28,000 under the Biden administration and said the new standards would only add to those costs while China continues to emit more carbon into the atmosphere than any other country.

He and other Republicans say the administration’s efforts to combat climate change are putting the U.S. behind China when it comes to manufacturing while increasing operating costs for American companies and as China continues to have an outsized effect on global emissions.

“I think we just disagree with the $1,000 number, and I’m not quite sure the underpinning of the $28,000, but our analysis shows that that rule will have, over the years, less than a 1% increase in energy costs,” Regan responded.

Zinke said the West is already facing a power grid problem and that Colstrip’s coal-fired plants are critical to maintaining power in Montana and other states when there is high demand for energy.

“When winters become 20 degrees below zero, it’s a little problem out there. And I can tell you, part of being upset is that D.C. doesn’t listen to outside the Beltway,” Zinke said. “So, when you put regulations that target our No. 1 power producer — and you know that China is producing them all the time, they’re making new Colstrips, they’re the biggest polluter in the world — and yet we’re focused on Montana and (negative) 20-degree winters, I get concerned.”

Regan retorted that the EPA was not targeting Montana and that Colstrip can make the same investments in controlling mercury that states like North Carolina, West Virginia, and North Dakota have.

Regan said Colstrip had been “cheating the system” and was the highest-emitting facility in the country, and that Montana children deserve the same health protections as those in other states.

“Ninety-three percent of the coal facilities in this country have magically figured out how to control mercury at a level that doesn’t produce this toxic for our children,” Regan said.

He told Zinke that there are four years for energy companies to come into compliance with the rule, and plant officials had told the EPA they planned to be online into the 2040s.

“All we’re saying is if you’re going to be online through the 2040s, make the same investments that 93% of facilities in this country have made,” Regan said.

Zinke took issue with how Regan characterized the agency’s communications with Colstrip about the standards changes and accused the EPA of not listening to the energy producers. He also asked Regan on if he had ever been to Montana to see operations for himself.

“You said you were going to invite me in a meeting last year; I did not get an invitation,” Regan responded.

“I’m going to invite you to Colstrip posthaste and you can explain how Colstrip told you they can comply with mercury and they can be in business up to 2040, according to your testimony,” Zinke responded.

“I didn’t say Colstrip said that they would do it, I said that our analysis shows that they can and they need to be,” Regan told him. “Our analysis shows it’s a cost-benefit investment, that this is a cost-available technology that 93% of coal plants across this country are going to be shown to comply with this rule. Colstrip is consistently the highest emitter in the country.”

But Regan’s comments about Colstrip “cheating the system” drew more ire from the Republican members of the congressional delegation. Daines called the statement a “reprehensible lie and an attack on Montanans and our Montana way of life.” Rosendale called the statement disingenuous.

“This is just another example of the EPA’s overreach targeting Montana’s businesses, economy, and citizens by creating emissions standards that are out of touch with scientific findings and the real-life impact,” Rosendale said.

On Wednesday, Tester got his chance to query Regan on the changes as well. He in December told Regan that the EPA needed to consult more with the energy industry before finalizing its rules, and told him Wednesday that it is unrealistic for Colstrip to pay for the changes it would need to make under the new standards when it already has a set depreciation date.

He told Regan Wednesday that since the rule provides for “additional flexibilities,” he wants to meet with Regan to discuss what those could look like for Colstrip, which Regan said he was amenable to.

“[The Administration] just needs to understand that a one-size-fits-all rule doesn’t necessarily work all the time,” Tester said.

Though the final rules were issued last week, whether they hold up is another story. Several Republican attorneys general have threatened to sue over them, and some members of Congress have threatened to try and undo them through the Congressional Review Act.

But the rules are a key piece of the administration’s efforts to transition away from oil, gas and coal-burning energy production that the White House and EPA said would net hundreds of billions in net benefits to public health and the climate.

“America is now a magnet for private investment, with hundreds of billions of dollars committed and 270,000 new clean energy jobs created,” said Ali Zaidi, the president’s national climate adviser, in a statement. “This is how we win the future, by harnessing new technologies to grow our economy, deliver environmental justice, and save the planet for future generations.”