Montana recently missed an opportunity to advocate on behalf of Colstrip, a community of less than 2,500 souls that is nonetheless the largest city in Rosebud County, and which is almost entirely dependent on its coal-fired power plant.

The plant is one of the largest of its kind in the West, producing more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity. But two of the plant’s aging units – representing half the facility – are slated for imminent closure. One co-owner, Puget Sound Energy, reached an agreement with environmental groups last year to shutter Units 1 and 2 by July 2022, and the other co-owner, Talen Energy, wants to end its involvement with Colstrip by as early as 2018.

In February, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox filed for intervention in electricity rate proceedings in Washington, where Puget Sound Energy is based. At the time, Fox noted that “(i)t’s important that the state of Montana has a seat at the table throughout this rate proceeding so our interests can be adequately represented” because “(m)any thousands of Montana residents will be economically impacted, directly or indirectly, by the closure of the Colstrip Units.”

It was therefore a dismaying surprise to learn that Fox recently opted not to fill Montana’s seat at the negotiating table and chose not to file testimony. His office, while declining to more specific answers, essentially put the blame on the Legislature, saying the decision not to file was made after a bill was tabled in the Legislature that would have provided a transition plan for Colstrip’s closure and forced its co-owners to cover certain associated costs.

Fox owes Montana a much better explanation. Moreover, he owes the people of Colstrip a sincere apology.

First of all, Fox’s lack of action on this matter should not have come as a surprise. If it was in fact his intention to miss the deadlines, he ought to have communicated that to the many folks who spent a great deal of time and effort to ensure he was provided with all the resources necessary to speak on Montana’s behalf.

Instead, legislators and others were caught by surprise upon learning that the June 30 deadline had passed without comment from Fox. Now, Puget Sound Energy and the rest of the board in Washington will proceed with plans to shut down half of Colstrip without input from Montana.

Montana’s legislators have been working to make that shutdown as painless as possible. During this year’s legislative session, they made sure to set aside $80,000 in a tight budget year specifically to help Colstrip. The money was meant to provide aid to Colstrip workers, encourage Puget Sound Energy to explore investment opportunities in Montana – and pay for any costs incurred by Fox’s office while advocating for Colstrip.

Democrat and Republican legislators alike are justifiably frustrated with the Republican attorney general’s silence. As House Energy Committee Vice Chair Denise Hayman, a Democrat, said in a recent news story, “We do not as a state have too many options that impact Puget Sound Energy. This was one of our few options, other than taking them to court directly.”

House Energy Committee Chair Daniel Zolnikov, a Billings Republican, further explained that the tabled bill should not have prevented the attorney general from offering recommendations, and in fact, other legislation was passed that established remediation procedures for coal-fired generating units.

In short, Fox’s excuse doesn’t add up.

His communications director, Eric Sell, did offer a statement saying that “Attorney General Fox is determined to mitigate the broader societal costs imposed on the state of Montana by the closure of Colstrip Units 1 and 2. Although the Montana Legislature narrowly failed to pass a law that would have allowed for recovery of such costs, and was the primary basis for our intervention in the rate case to begin with, we are still actively engaged in an attempt to advocate for the people of Colstrip and the interests of the state of Montana.”

His office must now follow up on that promise by detailing exactly how it is “actively engaged” and what specific steps it is taking to “mitigate the broader societal costs.”

Having missed a crucial deadline, Montana will not be a party to the discussions in Washington concerning the future of Colstrip Units 1 and 2. Montana won’t be allowed to offer comment to the Utility and Transportation Commission in Washington, which must approve any shutdown plans or rate changes. Nine other organizations have that ability because they met the deadline to file testimony, but not Montana.

At it stands, Montana is in a weaker position to advocate for Colstrip than it was a month ago, and this unfortunate development came as a complete surprise. If Fox has some plan to strengthen Montana’s position and help the Colstrip community, it shouldn’t come as a surprise as well.

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