The Coal Campaign

Controlling the coal narrative is important

By Kellyn Brown

For years, Colstrip has provided energy to Pacific Northwest cities. Its four coal-fired generating units light up hundreds of thousands of homes in Washington and Oregon – meeting demand in urban areas with growing populations and manufacturing. Now both states are weaning their grids off coal at the expense of Montana jobs. And now a central theme in the 2016 election cycle, the question has surfaced: Who’s to blame?

Gubernatorial Republican candidate Greg Gianforte has made his feelings clear. He blames, at least partially, incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Gianforte’s background is in tech, but he has increasingly criticized the governor over what he perceives as his unfriendliness to coal.

In response to Bullock hosting the Democratic Governors Association fundraiser in Big Sky, Gianforte called it “a slap in the face to the folks in Colstrip worried about losing their jobs and their entire community.”

Why? Because Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will be in attendance. And besides the president and his Clean Power Plan, which the Supreme Court recently put on hold, the state of Washington is enemy No. 1 in Montana’s coal country.

Washington’s legislators recently passed, and Inslee is expected to sign, a bill providing a way for Colstrip shareholder Puget Sound Energy to raise funds to close two of Colstrip’s oldest units. There was no timeline attached to the legislation, but Puget Sound can access the money in seven years.

There are several more factors working against Colstrip. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis told Washington’s utility commission that the two units under consideration for closure are in dire financial straits, partially because of pollution regulation and partially because of market factors – mainly, cheap natural gas.

Controlling the coal narrative is important. And the reason for coal’s struggles – regulations or simple economics – matters in Montana’s election, especially in the campaign for governor. It’s the difference between placing blame on individuals for an industry’s struggle, and placing blame on the industry itself. Last week, in another major coal development, there was another opportunity to do both.

On March 10, Arch Coal announced it would suspend plans for the proposed Otter Creek mine in southeastern Montana. The company, which holds the second largest coal reserves in the country but was driven to bankruptcy last year, waded into the 2016 election by at once blaming its decision on the weak coal market and the long permitting process.

“Arch can no longer devote the time, capital and resources required to develop a coal mine on the Otter Creek reserve,” the company said in a news release.

Gianforte blamed Bullock for not issuing a permit in a timely manner. But his fellow Republican and former colleague at RightNow Technologies, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, placed blame squarely on President Obama.

“This decision is an unfortunate repercussion of President Obama’s all-fronts assault on domestic energy production,” Daines said.

Meanwhile, state officials said Arch Coal failed to submit necessary data to move the permitting process forward. “We’ve essentially been on hold for the last year waiting for them to respond,” Tom Livers, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, told the Great Falls Tribune.

There’s lots of blame to go around for coal’s struggles. There are far fewer solutions.