BILLINGS, Mont. — A large Montana coal plant serving utility customers across the Pacific Northwest has agreed to shut down two of its four units by 2022 under a settlement announced Tuesday with environmentalists who sued over alleged air pollution violations.
Terms of the partial shutdown of the 2,100-megawatt Colstrip plant were contained in a consent decree to be filed in U.S. District Court in Montana, according to co-owner Puget Sound Energy.
A wave of coal plant closures has transformed the utility industry in the United States, as cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas becomes the dominant fuel source for electricity generation.
This announcement is likely to reverberate through the election season, as Republicans seek to topple Montana’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock. The state holds almost one-third of the nation’s known coal reserves.
The portions of the plant slated to close under Tuesday’s agreement — units 1 and 2 — opened in the 1970s. Their presence transformed a sparsely populated agricultural area of southeastern Montana into the bustling industrial town of Colstrip.
Puget Sound Energy of Bellevue said low natural gas prices have made the plant less economic, and without the settlement Colstrip could have been forced to purchase costly pollution controls.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee released a statement applauding the settlement.
“The settlement reflects the market realities in the power sector and will allow PSE to responsibly manage their risks, protect their ratepayers, and reduce pollution,” Inslee said in the statement. “This agreement is consistent with the legislation I signed earlier this year and puts us on a path that is good for Washington ratepayers and good for clean air.”
It’s uncertain how many of Colstrip’s 360 workers could lose their jobs, but PSE President Kimberly Harris indicated in a statement that Colstrip Units 3 and 4 will continue to operate well into the future.
“We know this will be a time of transition in Colstrip. We have been a part of the community for four decades and we will continue to be there for many years to come,” she said.
Combined, the two units slated to close generate about 600 megawatts of electricity.
A megawatt can power roughly 1,000 homes, but many of Colstrip’s customers are industrial or commercial.
Suit after upgrades
The Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Center sued the plant’s six co-owners in 2013, saying upgrades meant to prolong the life of the plant were made without proper permits.
Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center said Tuesday’s consent decree requires Colstrip’s owners to decrease air pollution at the two impacted units until the day they close. She said the 2022 “end date” gives state and local officials room to figure out what’s next for the community that depends on the plant.
“We are willing to live with those dates. It gives everybody time to plan and work toward a new future for the town of Colstrip,” she said.