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Courtesy of the Billings Gazette

Colstrip, Montana: Bellweather for America’s Energy Future?

More than a town, Colstrip, Montana may be a bellweather of the United States’ energy future, as coal continues to decline.

Colstrip’s fortunes have slipped precipitously over the past few years. Facing rising costs and legal challenges, some owners, such as Puget Sound Energy, in the have opted to shut down units rather than retrofit them to meet current air standards, much to the exasperation of Montana lawmakers. Others, like Pennsylvania’s Talen Energy, have decided to walk away as managers. Recent discussions have centered on costs to retrofitting plant units and possibly loaning the plant millions to help keep it afloat as long as possible.

Coal, of course, has been on the decline for decades, and is projected to decline even further as natural gas remains cheap and renewable energy keeps creeping from the margins into America’s energy picture. But you wouldn’t know it looking at a place like Colstrip, which (more or less) only exists because of the power plant—sustained by historic demand from the Pacific Northwest and (more importantly) the people who live and work in town.

Indeed, per a report from NPR, many Colstrip residents are incredulous that anyone would seek to change America’s energy demands—and fearful that they’ll be left behind, their entreaties staling on their silenced tongues:

America’s energy system is a web, connecting inland to coast and urban to rural. And as that system shifts, people are starting to ask: What — if any — support should a town like Colstrip get from places like Seattle or the federal government as the town enters an uncertain future?

Despite the recent promises from the Trump administration to bring the coal industry back, America’s energy system is shifting increasingly toward natural gas, wind and solar. Economics are driving the change. But so are politics.

In the week since President Trump announced that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, a broad coalition of cities, states, businesses and universities have promised to uphold the agreement and reduce their carbon emissions. “We’re still in,” is their motto. Washington state was already in. It has a commitment to use less coal.

Colstrip is a coal town. And even though the challenges it’s facing existed long before Trump’s announcement, people there are angry about the push to change America’s energy demands. They feel like they don’t have a say. And they fear they’ll be left behind.


Resident and activist Lori Shaw says a “crisis fatigue” has set in.

“You’re so used to being on the edge for so long,” she says, “It’s almost like you forget to panic anymore, even though it is panic-worthy. It’s like, yeah, I know we might lose everything next month. What’s new?”

[Colstrip historical center director Lu] Shomate says the same thing that’s happened in Appalachia and other parts of blue-collar America is starting to happen here: “The middle class is being ripped apart.”

Shomate, [Kerri] Kerzmann and others in Colstrip want a plan to help the town now and as it transitions into an uncertain future. All say that coal should be part of that plan, but they know it can’t be the only part.

“We know there are better ways of doing things, so let’s work on that together,” Shomate says. “But we’re not getting that support. It’s just: shut it down, dirty, filthy coal.”

Colstrip residents are not blind to the environmental costs incurred by coal pollution; it’s part-and-parcel of coal electricity generation. Indeed, according to NPR, Hugh Mannix and his “Rusty Zippers” (a group of older men who congregate at a local coffee shop) neatly explains the dichotomy between Colstrip and places like Seattle: “So we can put up with all the pollution and they get the gravy.”

Mannix says, despite that, the town has reaped huge successes from this relationship, “made it successful,” only for coastal “prima donnas” to decide they’re done with coal. Indeed, Mannix told NPR he and others would like to see some form of payment in recognition of Colstrip’s role in powering Seattle—and as recompense for out-of-town utilities “pulling the plug.” It’s a sentiment shared by Colstrip’s state senator, Duane Ankney. From NPR:

Ankney, the state senator, proposed a bill in Montana’s legislature earlier this year that would require utilities to do just that.

There are six utilities that have ownership in Colstrip’s plant. All are based out of state.

Ankney’s bill would have required them to help pay for the social costs of decommissioning the plant, by making them have “a plan in place for the workers,” he says. That plan would include money for lost real estate values, tax revenues and to help re-train the workers.

The bill, Ankney says, was about accountability to the state of Montana and to the workers who made the utilities what they are.

“I think that would go a long ways, to cop a phrase, to make America great again. It’s when you have corporate responsibility,” says Ankney, a Republican and retired coal mine superintendent.

The bill failed in Montana’s legislature. It was fought by utilities and environmental groups, who feared that it would scare away future investment in Montana from renewable energy companies.

A related bill, which required that the utilities have a plan and money set aside for environmental remediation at the plant site, passed.

Much of the recent discussion over America’s energy future has centered on two developments: the stalling of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan in court and the inauguration of President Trump, who is an avowed coal fan and campaigned on ending “the war on coal.” Predictably, many in Colstrip (including mayor John Williams) have sung hallelujahs in light of recent developments. But not everyone in Colstrip is singing, according to NPR:

The Clean Power Plan was Obama’s biggest effort to combat climate change. It would have required that states like Montana reduce their carbon emissions. [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Colstrip chapter business manager Rex] Rogers was on Montana’s team that studied how that would play out on the ground. The expectation, he says, is that it would have forced the closure of the two older units at the town’s power plant.

Put another way: “The impact on Colstrip would have been exactly what we’re seeing now,” he says.

Only now, the Clean Power Plan is gone. Montana was one of dozens of states that successfully sued to stop the plan. Trump has ordered that it be repealed.

“Well the concern with that is, built into the Clean Power Plan was [a section] about transitioning, taking care of the workers and those parts of it,” Rogers says.

Rogers is referring to Obama’s Power+ Plan, which aimed to give resources to “assist communities and workers that have been affected by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations, and coal-related supply chain industries due to the changing economics of America’s energy sector.”

It was the Obama administration’s way of saying: We know the market is changing; here’s our plan to help cushion the fall.

Now, Rogers says, the cushion is gone and there’s nothing being proffered by the new administration to replace it.

“Even though we won the ‘war on coal,’ it doesn’t appear that there was anything in that for the workers,” he says.


While Trump’s never-say-die approach to the coal industry is refreshing to some, it’s worrisome to others.

“It appears that that comes with a price of: then let’s pretend that the transition isn’t happening,” says Julia Haggerty, a professor at Montana State University. “That, I think, does not do a service to the places that are experiencing the transition.”

Haggerty studies efforts to help struggling coal towns. She’s spent a lot of time in Colstrip and other coal towns in the Mountain West. And she knows how hard it is to even have a discussion about transitions in those places.

“These are purpose-built energy towns,” she says. “So it’s pretty tricky, I think, to ask ‘what comes next?’ That’s often a painful conversation to have because what comes next in a remote, isolated energy-producing town is really a very difficult thing to know.”

She says it’s important that these conversations happen though; that plans are made for the future as the nation moves further away from coal.

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