HELENA — Republicans in the Montana Senate Tuesday advanced the bill that guarantees NorthWestern Energy certain cost recovery, from its customers, if it acquires more power from the Colstrip coal-fired plants.
Senate Bill 379 spells out how state utility regulators must allow NorthWestern to pass very specific costs of any Colstrip acquisition on to ratepayers – if they approve that acquisition.
Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls and the sponsor of the bill, said NorthWestern and its Montana customers need the reliable power that would come from Colstrip, and that the bill merely spells out how the company will be fairly compensated for its costs.
But opponents said SB379 amounts to a “blank check” for the company’s hoped-for acquisition of more Colstrip power, which would be more expensive than other alternatives.
“I have no idea why you would vote for this,” said Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings. “The ratepayers are on the hook for this, period. There is no exposure to NorthWestern shareholders.”
The Senate voted 30-20 for Senate Bill 379, with all “yes” votes coming from Republicans. Sen. Brad Molnar of Laurel, a former state utility regulator, was the only Republican to join all 19 Democrats in voting “no.”
The bill faces one more Senate vote before advancing to the House.
NorthWestern Energy is a key backer of the bill, saying it’s needed to ensure the company is fairly compensated if it acquires a bigger share of the two Colstrip power plants.
Other co-owners of the plants – utilities in Oregon and Washington – want out of the plant, because they no longer want coal-fired power.
Republicans, largely supportive of coal and the Colstrip plants, see the bill as a way to prolong the life of the aging plants.
“For the last 40 to 50 years, those plants have been putting out low-cost, reliable energy,” said Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip. “And there is nothing I’ve heard here that makes me believe that they’ll do anything different.”
Opponents say NorthWestern’s share of Colstrip power, acquired 12 years ago, is already priced well above the market, and that SB379 would enable the company to charge that exorbitant price for any additional power.
Fitzpatrick also attempted to amend the bill to make any Public Service Commission staff memos confidential documents, unavailable to the public. A PSC staff memo issued last month had blasted the original version of SB379, saying it would be harmful to consumers.
Fitzpatrick said the memos are legal documents prepared for the PSC and should be confidential, because in the past they’ve been used to support lawsuits against the PSC. His attempt to make them secret failed on a 25-25 vote.