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Perspectives on Billings, Coal and the Media

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A Washington state utility is penciling out the numbers for closing Colstrip Units 1 and 2, according to the Billings Gazette.

I didn’t realize that Colstrip was such a mess.  From the Gazette story:

Colstrip has coal ash ponds that have been leaking wastewater for years. The community’s groundwater has been contaminated and cleanup is far from over.

And

The Colstrip Power Plant is the nation’s 15th-largest producer of greenhouse gases, emitting 13.5 million metric tons annually, according to the EPA. Units 1 and 2 are its oldest and biggest polluters.

Puget Sound Energy, a half-owner in the units, pegs the cost of dismantling and cleanup between $130 and $200 million.  Some are saying that estimate is low and Ann Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center says the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be as coal ash continues to accumulate.

“That to me is the admission that they (PSE administrators) don’t have an interest in operating these plants very long,” she said. “They’re saying the longer these are operational, the more it’s going to cost consumers.”

I’m in the Magic City as I write this.  That’s Billings, to those not familiar with Montana city nicknames.  My frequent trips here always give me some perspective.

Most of my male Billings in-laws, at one time or another, have worked in the extractive industries: Conoco-Phillips, Stillwater Mine, Signal Peak (a coal mine near Roundup) or some company that supplies equipment to the Bakken.  They make good wages and have excellent benefits.  The Colstrip news is not well received.  We don’t talk about it much but it does give me, again, perspective.

While there, I read the Gazette.  In a matter of days, it had an insightful guest column and a surprisingly thoughtful editorial, both on the future of Montana coal.  Although they didn’t go far enough in the much needed radical shift to renewable energy and the effects of climate change, they offered evidence that even my in-laws pondered: coal’s days are numbered.     

The guest column was by a former, respected Billings legislator, Tom Towe.  It strikes too moderate a tone, and the headline (not written by him) reads “Look at facts: Coal isn’t dead yet,” but Towe closes with this:

… the alarmists’ claim that 7,000 jobs will be lost is totally misleading. There are only 360 jobs in all the Colstrip plants, 100 in Colstrip 1 and 2. There are only about 1,900 jobs in all the coal mines and coal plants in Montana including affected railroad jobs. The Apollo Study predicted 7,670 new jobs would come to Montana from renewable energy projects. Wise use of training and impact dollars could lessen the pain and hasten the recovery from a few job losses.

That’s an accurate assessment.  And the Gazette editorial titled “Diversify or die, it’s our choice,” reflects on the Montana boom and bust cycles and the need for change.

And, like any business, we have to ask our elected leaders and our economic leaders if placing so many resources to fight for coal has a good return on our investment? In other words, if we put in so much effort to save coal, will there be a positive return, especially because so many of the factors that influence coal are outside the borders of Montana and even outside the United States?

We need to respect perspectives but my in-laws, leadership in the unions and government, and the media need to continue moving forward.  The consequences from not doing so are obvious.

It’s past time to retrain the energy sector workers in Eastern Montana.  That means jobs that require the kind of skills that command good wages and benefits — specifically, a massive shift to renewables.  And shutting down Units 1 and 2, and cleaning up the mess that’s Colstrip, might also be a good place to start.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we\'d certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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  • Would you explain that, Greg? The energy trust fund I’m most familiar with is the Coal Severance Tax Trust Fund. It’s a tax of about 15%, maybe less, on the price of coal at the “mine’s mouth.” (The tonnage price is higher, later, when transportation and other factors are figured in.)

    Are you suggesting a tax on renewables that would go into a trust fund? Or are you advancing something else?

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