Billings Gazette: Tester balks at Biden’s climate change policies

by Tom Lutey

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and several other Democratic lawmakers in tossup Senate races are asking the Biden administration to abandon plans for tougher air pollution standards for power plants.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, the senators requested the agency collaborate with unions and power plant owners on “maintaining affordable, reliable power; protecting American energy independence; protecting jobs; and lowering emissions.”

Tester coauthored the letter with Sens. Sherrod Brown, of Ohio; Joe Manchin, of West Virginia; Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona. Republicans have made flipping the seats in Arizona, Montana and West Virginia a 2024 priority. The Republicans’ benefit, Manchin has announced he won’t seek re-election. Sinema has left the Democratic Party and is running as an Independent.

At issue are EPA plans for tighter limits on power plant greenhouse gas emissions. Power plants account for 25% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. The proposed “New Source Performance Standards for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from New, Modified, and Reconstructed Fossil Fuel-Fired Electric Generating Units” would require power plant owners to capture most carbon dioxide emissions within 16 years.

Colstrip Power Plant is one of the nation’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide pollution, with about 10.9 million tons emitted in 2021. Announcing the proposed limits in May, EPA Secretary Michael Regan said that innovative technology will be key to curbing greenhouse gases. But Tester and the other Democrats questioned whether the technology was far enough along to serve as a parachute for coal power.

Regan suggested in May that technology standards would compel power plants to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 617 million metric tons by 2042.

The pollution would likely be cut through best-available-science emissions controls, a pivot to cleaner burning fuels, or a combination of both.

The possibility of tougher pollution standards was met with alarm by two owners of Colstrip Power Plant, namely NorthWestern Energy and Talen Energy, both of which are trying to acquire more shares of Colstrip from owners facing bans on coal power in Washington and Oregon. NorthWestern expects to double its owned coal power generation in Montana at the end of 2025 and indicated it would be looking for more Colstrip power if it became available.

Kathleen Potter, Talen Energy’s senior environmental professional, told EPA the new standards would drive Colstrip into closure.

“Talen has significant concerns about the proposal, particularly as it pertains to existing coal-fired steam generating units. The concerns stem from the unique circumstances of Colstrip,” said Potter, in testimony to EPA. “Per the Proposal, Colstrip would be forced to either: (1) retire by the end of 2031; (2) retire by the end of 2034 but adopt an annual capacity factor limit by 20 percent from 2030; (3) retire by the end of 2039 and co-fire 40 percent natural gas from 2030; or (4) operate past 2039 and install CCS with 90 percent carbon dioxide (“CO2”) capture by 2030. For it to operate beyond 2034, Colstrip would need to make massive capital investments, including on supporting infrastructure such as pipelines, to co-fire natural gas or to implement CCS. Colstrip currently does not have any ability to implement either technology.”

Talen, the power plant operator at Colstrip, emerged from bankruptcy in late 2022. Potter told EPA that Colstrip would shut down rather than operate intermittently during times of peak demand.

Montana’s congressional Republicans, Sen. Steve Daines and Reps. Matt Rosendale and Ryan Zinke were quick to blast the EPA’s proposed rule in May. Zinke suggested the rule would lead to “high priced electricity and brownouts.”

The threat of shutdown over tougher pollution limits is similar to Colstrip owners’ response to the “Clean Power Plan” of the Barack Obama presidency. That plan proposed that each state as a whole meet tougher greenhouse gas emissions standards, which in Montana’s case meant shutting down the two dirtiest of Colstrip’s four units. The Clean Power Plan died in court, while Colstrip’s Units 1 and 2 were shuttered for being uneconomical. But the politics of a Democratic president attempting to curb climate change, put the party’s statewide elected officials on the hot seat in Montana.

Steve Bullock, Montana’s former Democratic governor, accused President Obama of “moving the goalposts” of climate change policy to Montana’s disadvantage. Bullock was up for reelection in 2016 when EPA informed Montana it would have to cut carbon emissions by 21%.

Votes in Rosebud Co.

Colstrip is in Rosebud County, which combined with neighboring Big Horn County, comprise the heart of Montana coal country. Both counties have coal-fired power plants, though Hardin Generation Station in Big Horn County operates little to not at all.

Both counties are home to Montana’s largest, open-pit coal mines, which are also struggling. Big Horn County’s Decker Mine closed in early 2021 after losing its last powerplant customer. There were no takers for Decker Mine, which remains closed. The Absaloka mine, with mineral rights owned by the Crow Tribe of Indians, produced less than 2 million tons of coal in 2023 as its mainstay customer Sherburne County Generation Station in Minnesota transitions to solar power.

In Rosebud County, the closures of Colstrip Units 1 and 2 have cut into the coal production of Rosebud Mine. EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas emissions are just one of the pollution regulations on the horizon that could drive up the cost of operating Colstrip. There are tougher mercury air toxics emissions standards in the works, as well.

Tester’s share of the vote in these two coal counties has been shrinking over the past three elections. Voting records show the Democrat won 55% of the vote in Rosebud County in 2006 when he unseated incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. In 2012, Tester won 48% of the vote. By 2018, he was down to 44%.

In Big Horn County, Tester’s share of the vote has slid from 74% in 2006 to 64% in 2018. In the 2018 election, Republicans were trying out a new slogan Big Horn County’s American Indian majority: “A war on coal, is a war on Indian families.”