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HELENA — The state needs to try to keep Colstrip units open as long as possible, and start planning for how to transition its economy and workers when jobs there are lost, Rep. Jim Keane told a legislative committee on Monday.

The Butte Democrat introduced two bills to the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee that he said would move Montana in that direction. Both measures are part of a five-bill package drafted by the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee over the summer.

House Bill 21 would establish a temporary task force to determine what rights workers have to keep their pensions and other benefits if their employer goes bankrupt, and what role the state should play in ensuring that protection.

House Bill 22 asks for state funding that would allow Montana to make its case to the Washington utility commission during upcoming rate hearings that will decide the future of Colstrip, as well as some additional funding to research what alternative energy Montana might sell to its neighbor.  

“It’s about protecting Colstrip first, but the State of Montana even above that,” Keane said.

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A consent decree filed in U.S. District Court last July included terms to shut down two of four units at the Colstrip plant, which sends coal-generated power throughout the Pacific Northwest. The decree was the conclusion of a 2013 lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center. The two older Colstrip units to be shut down are both owned by out-of-state companies: Washington’s Puget Sound Energy and Pennsylvania’s Talen Energy, which was bought by a private equity firm late last year.

The owners have said they would prefer to keep the units in operation up to the 2022 shutdown deadline, but could close sooner. Montana legislators traveled to Washington state three times over the last two years, hoping to convince state lawmakers there to require Puget Sound Energy to keep the units operating as long as possible.  

“Frankly, they talked real nice to us, they treated us real good, then they hung us,” Keane said. “That’s what happened. We got absolutely nothing promised us.”

In large part, he said, that’s why he is carrying HB 22. A Washington utility commission slated to hold rate hearings will decide how long to operate the Colstrip units and how much money should be set aside to cover decommissioning and remediation costs.

The bill would give $100,000, divided between the attorney general and governor’s offices, to intervene in those discussions and make the best case for Montana. Another $30,000 would fund a study of other energy options Montana might sell to Washington along the same lines so rates do not balloon here and some jobs might be salvaged.

He noted that the power generated at Colstrip keeps rates in Montana low so that a variety of industries can afford to do business here.

“We’re talking broad brushstrokes that could devastate communities all across Montana if we don’t stand up for ourselves,” Keane said.  

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Just as HB 22 seeks to protect the state economy as a whole, Keane said HB 21 would work to protect workers affected by the Colstrip closures. It would allocate $20,000 to a task force to study what benefits Colstrip workers have been promised and determine what can be done to keep them whole, whether or not that involves the state at all.

When previous corporate giants have shuttered, such as Montana Power Company or Patriot Coal, employees lost all or some of the value of their pensions or other retirement benefits. In some cases, employees sued to get the full value back – but ultimately some of the winnings went to cover court costs.

No one spoke in opposition to either bill.

Numerous groups stood in support of the two bills, including associations representing city and county governments, economic development groups, environmental organizations, an oil-and-gas county coalition, a tribal coalition and leaders from Colstrip.

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John Metropolous, a Helena lawyer representing Talen Energy, spoke as an informational witness.

“We have no reason to oppose helping workers protecting what they deserve,” he said.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, and Rep. Adam Rosendale, R- Billings, asked repeated questions of Keane and supporters about why government should be involved at all, whether the tone of the discussion was only hastening Colstrip’s closure and about the cost of the bills.

“Is it the position of cities and towns of Montana that if a company that came to Montana to do business that once they’re here ... if they shut down, don’t worry, taxpayers would foot the bill?” Skees asked Kelly Lynch of the Montana League of Cities and Towns about HB 21.

“I don’t read the bill the same way you do,” she replied. “It puts together a task force to look at what those options are and leave that up to the city working with the company or the state working with the company what to do about that.”

Later Rosendale asked about HB 22: “Is it the taxpayers’ money?”

Yes, said Keane and Bob Gilbert, a lobbyist who represents the City of Colstrip and Rosebud County. But they argued that is not necessarily a bad thing.

“This bill makes sense,” Gilbert said. “These (companies) have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. So let’s pretend just for a minute we’re spending a little portion of their money….We’re not spending my tax money or your tax money. We’re taking a portion of their own tax money to use against them to make sure justice is served.”

Keane said the numerous questions about the task force bill proved his point that one is needed.

“That’s what this bill is about,” he said. “We’re studying with $20,000 where these people’s answers lie, to get the questions answered (that were) brought up in the committee hearing.”

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