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Judith Gap wind power turbine

Wind turbines stand out on the landscape in Judith Gap.

NorthWestern Energy had asked the Public Service Commission if it could pay decreased rates to wind- and solar-energy projects, a request the PSC denied in May 2015.

HELENA – Proposed federal rules to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants won’t take effect until 2016 – and won’t fall entirely on the back of coal-fired power plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency rules say states can use a variety of steps, like producing more clean energy or consuming less electricity, to reduce the overall production of coal-fired power.

But that doesn’t mean Montana’s coal industry is happy about the rules.

“There is nothing positive there (for coal),” Bud Clinch, executive director of the Montana Coal Council, said of the rules. “It makes utilizing coal as a fuel source more difficult and certainly more expensive. It will force coal-burning facilities to make very hard decisions on whether they continue or not.”

State environmental officials, however, say the rules won’t exterminate coal as a fuel source in Montana. They estimate the share of electricity in Montana generated by coal will fall from 35 percent to 31 percent, because of the rules.

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Here’s how the rules would work, as proposed by the EPA:

Montana must reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants in the state by 21 percent, by 2030.

Carbon emissions can be measured by the ton or by pounds-per-megawatt-hour of power produced. Montana is supposed to reduce its pounds-per-mWh from 2,246 to 1,771.

States can choose which steps they’ll take to meet the goals, subject to EPA approval. The Bullock administration believes it can design a plan that won’t harm existing coal-fired power plants in the state.

For example, a state plan could increase wind-, solar- and hydropower production, making it a bigger share of the power mix, and thus reducing the pounds-per-megawatt of carbon.

Also, the plans could call for aggressive energy-efficiency programs that would reduce power consumption and thus reduce emissions.

Clinch, however, says the rules further cloud the horizon for the coal industry, which already faces many uncertainties and declining domestic markets.

Montana has six major coal mines, most of which sell their coal into Midwestern markets, for power generation.

Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, continues to work on a proposed coal mine in the Otter Creek drainage east of Billings. Last month, the company resubmitted its permit application to state officials, in response to questions from the state.

The mine would be perhaps the largest in the state, but its development depends on market conditions and other factors, the company says.

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