Monday, 05 June 2023 14:55

The Battle for Clean Energy in Coal Country

A coal-fired power plant towers over the town of Colstrip, Montana. A conveyor belt (foreground) carries coal directly from the nearby Rosebud coal mine. Credit: Stephen Smith for Reveal

Across the country, states are moving to renewable energy – but Montana is doubling down on fossil fuels.

Montana has a long history of making money by extracting and exporting its natural resources, namely coal. State politicians and Montana’s largest electricity utility company seem set on keeping it that way.

Reveal’s Jonathan Jones travels to the town of Colstrip in the southeastern part of the state. It is home to one of the largest coal seams in the country – and one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the West. He learns that the state has signed off on a massive expansion of the coal mine that feeds the plant and that Montana’s single largest power company, NorthWestern Energy, has expanded its stake in the plant, even though it’s the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gas in Montana. Jones speaks with Colstrip’s mayor about the importance of coal mining to the local community. He also speaks to local ranchers and a tribal official who’ve been working for generations to protect the water and land from coal development.

Jones follows the money to the state’s capital, where lawmakers have passed one of the most extreme laws to keep the state from addressing climate change. He meets with plaintiffs involved in a first-of-its-kind youth-led lawsuit who are suing Montana for violating their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment.” Jones dives into lobbying records behind a flurry of bills that are keeping the state reliant on fossil fuels. He also finds that NorthWestern is planning to build a new methane gas plant on the banks of the Yellowstone River, and the company is being met with resistance from people who live near the site and from state courts.

Finally, Jones visits the state’s largest wind farm and speaks with a renewable energy expert, who says Montana can close its coal plants, never build a new gas plant and transition to 100% clean energy while reducing electricity costs for consumers. He also speaks with NorthWestern’s CEO and looks at other coal communities in transition.

The coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, Montana, is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the state. Credit: Stephen Smith for Reveal

Dig Deeper

Read: Gianforte signs bill banning state agencies from analyzing climate impacts (Montana Free Press)

Read: Affordable and Reliable Decarbonization Pathways for Montana (Vibrant Clean Energy study for 350 Montana)

Read: The Coal Cost Crossover 3.0 (Energy Innovation Policy & Technology)

Read: Net Zero by 2050 (NorthWestern Energy)

Listen: Colstrip’s Next Chapter (Shared State podcast from the Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio)

Watch: “Cowboy Poets,” a 1988 film featuring Wally McRae, a cowboy poet and conservationist in southeastern Montana.

Watch: What the Hell is Going On With the Colstrip Plant? (Montana Environmental Information Center)

Credits

Reporter: Jonathan Jones | Producer: Stephen Smith | Editor: Jenny Casas with help from Kate Howard | Additional reporting and research: Amanda Eggert | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Digital producer: Nikki Frick | Episode art: Stephen Smith | Interim executive producers: Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers | Host: Al Letson

Reported in partnership with the Montana Free Press. Special thanks to reporter Mara Silvers and editor Brad Tyer of the Montana Free Press and Yellowstone Public Radio.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. The local coal industry has always been a villain in William Walksalong’s life.
William Walksalong: They’re like a monster, and its teetering, ready to fall over. And that, I want to be part of the effort to cut its throat and let it bleed out and let it go away.
Al Letson: William grew up on the northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeast Montana. It’s near one of the largest coal seams in the country and one of the largest coal fire power plants in the west. He remembers when they started building it when he was in high school in the seventies.
William Walksalong: Oh, I remember distinctly all kinds of strange people from all over the country, construction workers. They’d blast those power plants to test them and you could drown everything out even in the classroom, kind of startle you when they were starting those big power plants up.
Al Letson: The power plant is in a town called Colstrip, and William was against it from the beginning. But when the construction was done, a lot of people from his community went to work there.
William Walksalong: I had adults and high school students telling me and my brother we were traitors, that we should go back to Colstrip and dig coal.
Al Letson: William never worked for the power plant or the coal mine that fed it. In the nineties, he became the vice president of the tribe at a time when there was a push to expand coal mining into the reservation.
William Walksalong: They were trying to get rid of our Indian nation as a obstacle or a barrier to unfettered energy development, including undermining our sovereignty, promising economic self-sufficiency, at the cost of our historical cultural sites. It was just a total shakedown of our way of life.
Al Letson: For the last three decades, William has done everything he can as a tribal administrator to keep coal mining off the reservation. And most recently, he was a part of an ongoing lawsuit against the Biden administration’s decision to permit coal leasing on public lands. Coal is, by far, the single biggest contributor to climate change. In 2022, global coal production rose above 8 billion metric tons, its highest level in history.
William Walksalong: I remember growing up. We had deeper snow, better runoff, and I’ve never seen so much drought in my life, and I’ve been alive for about almost… Well, I’m 64 years old, and I’ve never seen drought last that long. [inaudible] Creek dried up that one year, never seen that in my lifetime, and it’s due to climate change.
Al Letson: More and more states are shifting their energy consumption away from coal, but Montana is running in the opposite direction. The state is expanding coal mining and the legislature has been passing laws to prop up the fossil fuel industry.
Interviewees: Coal really is our ace in the hole. We just want to keep producing coal and bring money into the coffers.
And we’ll help encourage that industry to stay in the business of generating electricity.
We have a third of the nation’s coal, which greatly supports the state of Montana.
It’s good for Montanans and it’s good for business.
William Walksalong: They must live on a different planet. I don’t understand that. Well, I know the Republican super majority, they want to make it a clear path, easier path for energy development, dirty energy, I guess, coal and gas plants.
Al Letson: Montana is a place with some of the most extreme laws to prevent the state from addressing climate change. There’s also a powerful fossil fuel lobby and it’s a state with a lot of potential to completely shift to clean renewable energy. Reveal’s Jonathan Jones went to the Colstrip power plant, the one that was built when William was in high school and where the fight over its future has implications for the entire planet.
Jonathan Jones: I’m standing next to a big coal field. There’s a big black ridge of exposed coal, and then there are these big earth moving machines that are pushing the coal. This is the Rosebud coal mine. It’s right outside the town of Colstrip in southeastern Montana and one of the largest strip mines in North America.
Jonathan Jones: Bulldozers and large trucks that are bringing massive amounts of coal in from the coal mine to this big pile of coal that they’re then going to put on a conveyor belt. And the conveyor belt is like this long sort of khaki colored centipede that carries the coal from here to the power plant.
Jonathan Jones: The conveyor belt feeds coal directly to the Colstrip power plant that towers over the town.
Jonathan Jones: It’s a massive structure with four smoke stacks, two of which are active, two of which are quiet, and then there are two big cooling towers with billowing vapor coming out of it.
Jonathan Jones: Along with that vapor, the plant also puts out more than 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. It emits more greenhouse gas than any other single source in Montana, making it one of the biggest producers of CO2 in the western United States. The electricity made here has powered homes and buildings across the state and the Pacific Northwest since the 1970s.
Jonathan Jones: It’s coal fire power plants like this that’s provided most of our electricity for generations. But that’s changing now with the shifting energy market as more and more states pass legislation to wean themselves off coal.
Jonathan Jones: But not Montana. The Rosebud strip mine is expanding and one of the owners of the Colstrip power plant plans to keep burning coal until at least 2042 and people in the town want it that way.
Jonathan Jones: There are very few retail stores here. Right next to me is the Energy Employees Credit Union and outside there are two signs, one of which says “Coal keeps the doors open,” and the other one says “Coal keeps the lights on.” It’s almost hard to go one block here without seeing some sort of sign promoting coal, defending coal, and reminding people of coal’s importance to the energy sector and of course to Colstrip.
John Williams: My name is John Williams. I’m the mayor of the City of Colstrip. Everything here is either coal or power production as a result of coal.
Jonathan Jones: John Williams first moved here in 1971 when there were only a few hundred people in town.
John Williams: Colstrip came from the fact that this was a large strip of coal here. The story is that it was misspelled by the federal government when they put in the post office down here and that’s the name, and it stuck with it. C-O-L-S-T-R-I-P rather than C-O-A-L. That’s the story.
Jonathan Jones: Mayor Williams says he was one of the first two employees who oversaw the construction of the power plant. He essentially built the town and helped incorporate it as a city in the nineties. As I drive around, you can’t help but see a lot of the signs that say “Coal keeps the lights on,” “Coal keeps the doors open.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
John Williams: It’s happened because of the threat against coal, the war against coal. I mean billions of dollars within our state have been created as a result of the mining of coal and we get a lot of benefit as a result of coal, jobs, taxes.
Jonathan Jones: Together, the coal mine and the power plant are the two largest employers in the Colstrip area. The jobs and the tax revenue support a first class public school system, a nine hole golf course, medical services, a park system, and a median household income that’s 35% higher than the state average.
John Williams: Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg, so that’s my take on that. Right or wrong, that’s how I feel.
Jonathan Jones: So obviously this is a community as you’ve said that is extremely dependent on one natural resource, coal.
John Williams: Coal.
Jonathan Jones: And we’ve talked about sort of its positive aspects, but how has this created some challenges for the community?
John Williams: Well, part of the challenges are that we’re considered to be a one horse town, one industry town. And there’s also, we have a number of companies, the Pacific Northwest companies are making decisions or having decisions made for them that to remove themselves from coal.
Jonathan Jones: What he’s referring to is that for decades, Colstrip’s biggest customer for electricity was the Pacific Northwest. The Colstrip power plant is owned by six power companies, the majority of which are based in Oregon and Washington, and now they want out of Colstrip for what boils down to two main reasons. First, those companies are facing new climate laws requiring them to stop using coal power. Second, they say it’s too expensive to run the coal fire power plant. But there’s one main stakeholder staying put in Colstrip and buying out the other’s shares, NorthWestern Energy. It is the single largest electricity provider in Montana.
Brian Bird: I may be the only CEO in the utility industry adding coal to his portfolios.
Jonathan Jones: That’s NorthWestern CEO, Brian Bird at a meeting of state lawmakers and other officials in Montana’s capital. He’s announcing that NorthWestern is buying out another owner in Colstrip and for an unbeatable price, nothing.
Brian Bird: So understand why are we doing this, we’re doing this for our customers and our communities in Montana. And by the way, we’re doing it for three reasons, reliability, affordability, and sustainability.
Jonathan Jones: After the announcement, environmental groups blasted NorthWestern’s new Colstrip deal. They said it had nothing to do with reliability, affordability, or sustainability.
Anne Hedges: So NorthWestern wants that plant to continue to operate, not because it’s this great resource that it can’t possibly do without, it’s because that’s a lot of money and they don’t want to lose it.
Jonathan Jones: Anne Hedges is co-director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. It’s one of the state’s leading environmental groups. Her organization has legally challenged Colstrip stakeholders over a dozen times over pollution, rate increases, and mining expansions.
Anne Hedges: NorthWestern doesn’t give a hoot about its customers. It is more concerned about its executive salaries and bonuses and its shareholders than it is about the people who pay the bills.
Jonathan Jones: The company operates as a monopoly in Montana. It profits from generating electricity and charging people for it, and it also makes money by recouping the costs of its investments from its customers. So buying up shares and owning a bigger portion of the Colstrip power plant means more money for NorthWestern. This is how electric utilities operate in most states.
John Oliver: Our main story tonight, utilities, specifically electric utilities.
Jonathan Jones: John Oliver explained it this way on his show Last Week Tonight.
John Oliver: When they build something, a piece of physical infrastructure, they’re allowed to then pass along that cost to you through your bill, plus an additional percentage that they get to keep as profit, usually around 10%, and this creates a clear incentive. The bigger the project like a power plant, the more profit they make.
Jonathan Jones: John Oliver uses this analogy. It’s like a waiter in a restaurant where there’s a guaranteed tip. The more money that is spent on the meal, the more the waiter is going to make. NorthWestern first bought its stake in Colstrip in 2007 and paid around 187 million for it. But then the state approved the company’s request to value their assets in the power plant at 407 million, more than double what NorthWestern paid for it. And since utilities get to make back their expenses plus another eight to 10% profit, NorthWestern gets to pass the cost of the plant onto its electricity customers. In other words…
Anne Hedges: As long as that plant operates for the life of the plant, which was expected to be about 2042, NorthWestern will continue to collect from its customers. That’s a lot of money over time.
Jonathan Jones: A lot of money and a lot of consequences for the environment. Here’s Anne speaking on a recent webinar called What the Hell Is Going on with the Colstrip Plant.
Anne Hedges: Eight to 10 million tons of greenhouse gases a year being released from that facility. If we can’t solve a problem of one single plant like Colstrip and get it on a path towards closure and replacement, then we simply can’t solve our climate problem. I mean, it’s that simple.
Terry Punt: Girls and boys, [inaudible]…
Jonathan Jones: About an hour’s drive south of Colstrip Rancher, Jeanie Alderson and her husband Terry call out to their cows. Well,
Jeanie Alderson: We have about 50 mother cows and then we have yearlings, two year olds and a three year olds. We butcher them about three years old and so they just get fat on… We feed them through the winter and then in the summer they’ll go out on grass.
Jonathan Jones: Jeanie’s a fourth generation rancher. Her family’s run cattle here since the 1880s.
Jeanie Alderson: My dad’s family came from the deep south. My great-great granddad was from Alderson, West Virginia, and he was a Baptist minister. He was an abolitionist, so he had to leave the town and they went to Texas and then they came up from Texas to Montana.
Jonathan Jones: Jeanie’s family came up for the grasslands and the water. It’s why they’re still here today. She worries about the impact that coal has on the land. Toxic waste from the mine and the power plant has already harmed the water, the springs, wells, and creeks that ranchers and farmers depend on.
Jeanie Alderson: When you mine coal and you process it through the power plants, what’s left is the ash. So what they’ve done is to store this ash, they’ve been stored in these ponds, and it is getting into the groundwater. I mean the ranchers that are around Colstrip, it’s very scary for them.
Jonathan Jones: According to the State Department of Environmental Quality, the coal ash ponds associated with the power plant have been leaking since their inception. Elevated levels of toxic chemicals have been found in the groundwater. Colstrip residents have to get their drinking water pumped in from the Yellowstone River 30 miles away.
Jeanie Alderson: Ranching right now is hard enough, really hard to make enough money to stay in business. Since 1980, something like 40% of ranchers in this country have gone out of business and no one is really talking about that. Any other industry had we had that kind of loss, you would see it in the news more. And so we already are stressed to try and keep our ranches together.
Jonathan Jones: The Alderson Family Ranch has had to adapt to the changing market. Faced with relentless pressure from large scale beef packers offering lower prices, Jeanie and her family got creative. They invested in a herd of Wagyu cattle, a Japanese cow that produces one of the most expensive cuts of beef.
Jeanie Alderson: They don’t look like the kind of animals that most ranchers are used to, especially most ranchers in this part of the country.
Jonathan Jones: Other ranchers in the area have also adapted, but Jeanie’s worried that most people in southeastern Montana aren’t planning for a future that doesn’t rely on coal.
Jeanie Alderson: There’s so much potential here, but the leadership in the community, the mayor, the others, they’re so tied to the energy company, and I kind of feel like our leaders are just still thinking that they’re going to just keep going with coal.
Jonathan Jones: And in Helena, state lawmakers say their intention is to do just that.
Al Letson: Coming up.
Jason Small: Coal in Montana’s no different than potatoes in Ireland. I mean, that’s something we got and we’ve got it in spades and that’s our great equalizer, right?
Al Letson: Jonathan heads to Montana’s capital to meet with lawmakers behind the state’s coal expansion. That’s next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Wally McRae: My family’s been in this corner of southeastern Montana for over a hundred years. We celebrated our centennial year in 1986.
Al Letson: Wally McRae is a third generation rancher. His family has raised cattle and sheep in the Colstrip area since the 1800s. He’s a cowboy poet known for his writing about life in rural Montana.
Wally McRae: Cowboys have probably always been kind of popular, kind of a hero figure and maybe we fit in that. And so if people can get inside of that life through meter and rhyme, it’s got a combination of appeals.
Al Letson: This tape is from a 1988 film by Kim Shelton called Cowboy Poets. The film is from another time, but echoes many of the issues Montana ranching communities still wrestle with today. Here, Wally is describing a major theme of his poetry.
Wally McRae: Because one of the largest strip mines in the United States is in my backyard, I have written several poems about the effect that coal oriented industrialization has upon the cowboy culture.
Al Letson: One of his poems is called The Lease Hound. It describes a coal mining agent visiting a local ranch.
Wally McRae: I’ve come to lease your land for coal was how he launched his spiel. He’d been given an authority, the grand generous deal. The nation needs the coal, he said, as I am sure you know. We need more power every year to make our nation grow. And it’s the patriotic duty of each American to help to get the coal mine and expedite our plan. Now, you may not like strip mining and tearing up the earth, but it’s your duty, isn’t it?
Jeanie Alderson: Land men would go to people in that big boom time in the early seventies, the way my mom described it, and they would say, “Everybody else around you has sold out, why don’t you sign here? There’s nothing you can do.”
Al Letson: Rancher, Jeanie Alderson’s mom, Caroline was a contemporary of Wally’s. She was also hearing from speculators in the mid seventies.
Jeanie Alderson: When you’re told that your patriotic duty is to step aside so they can mine this coal underneath you, it’s insulting, it’s infuriating.
Al Letson: The speculators were there because of a report. The North Central power study published by the federal government in 1971. It designated southeast Montana as “a national sacrifice area for energy production.”
Jeanie Alderson: You know, eastern Montana, this kind of dry area anyway, who’s out there anyway, who really cares? Let’s just turn it into the boiler room of the nation.
Al Letson: The plan proposed building 42 coal fire power plants, half of them in and around Colstrip.
Wally McRae: They didn’t treat us well, they lied and they pitted one neighbor against another and it wasn’t a pretty sight and it offended us, it really did.
Al Letson: Montana has a long history of making money by extracting its natural resources, namely copper and coal. But Caroline, Wally, and other local ranchers didn’t want to be part of that legacy.
Jeanie Alderson: And my mom and other ranchers, they could right away see that the cost was going to be their land and water and their communities, and they were trying desperately to hold onto that.
Al Letson: Together, they organized the Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots movement to protect the land in rural Montana from industrial development.
Wally McRae: I think a lot of people assume that any sort of opposition to coal oriented industrialization was based purely on environmental grounds. I think that our concerns were more cultural or social and finally, long-term economic. I mean, hell, we’ve been here a hundred years, are we going to be able to be here a hundred years from now?
Al Letson: Other environmental groups followed. They held teach-ins, stage protests, and met with lawmakers. Their actions led the state to rewriting its constitution in 1972, producing what has been called one of the most progressive constitutions in the United States. It includes language to protect the public’s right to a “clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Today, a group of Montanans say that right is under attack and it’s coming from inside the state house. Reveal’s Jonathan Jones went to the state capitol in Helena to find out why.
Jonathan Jones: In the rotunda of Montana’s state capitol building in Helena, 14 year old Mica Kantor is practicing his speech.
Mica Kantor: I love animals. My favorite animal’s a pika. Unfortunately, they will be one of the first North American animals to go extinct because of climate change. It scares me to think that I will be-
Jonathan Jones: Moments later, Mica is called to join a small group behind a podium.
Interviewees: Let’s get started. Welcome everyone to the people’s house. Welcome everyone.
Jonathan Jones: Hundreds of people are gathered to hear what they have to say.
Interviewees: Welcome everyone to the rally to defend Montana’s constitution.
Jonathan Jones: Mica gets up to speak.
Mica Kantor: I’m not old enough to vote, so sometimes it is hard for me to feel like my voice is being heard.
Jonathan Jones: Mica stands out. Not just because he’s one of the youngest people here, but because he’s one of 16 young people suing the state over its fossil fuel energy policies. They argue state officials are violating their constitutional right to a healthful environment. The clause, put into the state constitution decades ago, thanks to environmental activists like Wally and Jeanie’s mom, Caroline.
Mica Kantor: Despite knowing about climate change and its detrimental effects for decades, the state of Montana has decided to ignore it for profit. But we have to ask ourselves if it is worth it. Is it worth it to lose the things we love? Is it worth it to lose the places that we relish? Is it worth it all in order for more profit?
Jonathan Jones: At age four, Mica started worrying about the future of the world’s glaciers. At nine, wildfire and smoke forced him to stay inside for six weeks and made him sick with headaches and eye irritation. At 11, a forest fire broke out about a mile from his home. Mica wrote letters to elected officials asking them to act on the changing climate. He got back a few automated responses. And so when his mom heard about an environmental lawsuit that needed young people to join and asked Mica if he was interested, it was an easy choice.
Mica Kantor: We’ll be the ones to have to live with the effects of climate change more than anybody else, so it’s really important for me to do this.
Jonathan Jones: The youth-led climate trial is the first of its kind in US history and it’s set to begin this summer on June 12th. Just upstairs from the rally are the offices of the lawmakers whose actions are part of the youth climate lawsuit. Tell me who you are and what you do.
Steve Fitzpatrick: Steve Fitzpatrick, senator from Great Falls, Montana, and I am the Republican senate majority leader.
Jonathan Jones: Senator Fitzpatrick is a lawyer and one of the most powerful political figures in the state. Fossil fuel companies are also some of his biggest campaign contributors. There’s this big rally at the Rotunda noon today over this youth climate lawsuit. What is your reaction to the lawsuit?
Steve Fitzpatrick: [inaudible] I don’t know anything about it. I’ve never read any of the pleadings. I mean, it’s kind of hard for me to offer a comment on a lawsuit where I haven’t even-
Jonathan Jones: But you’re a lawyer and you’re getting sued by the youth of Montana over the state’s climate policy, isn’t it in your interest to know what’s going on?
Steve Fitzpatrick: The state of Montana gets sued all the time, so I don’t… I’m a state legislator, I’m not the attorney general’s office. I don’t go read every lawsuit that gets filed.
Jonathan Jones: Fitzpatrick was elected to the state house in 2010 and then to the senate in 2016. He’s the son of John Fitzpatrick, a former lobbyist for NorthWestern Energy, who is now a state representative. For the past several years, Senator Fitzpatrick has been pushing legislation to make sure the coal fired power plant in Colstrip stays open.
Steve Fitzpatrick: The way I look at that is that we’ve got a resource, we have an asset in the state of Montana, and I don’t think it ought to be destroyed. We need coal and we need energy that’s reliable and useful.
Jonathan Jones: In 2021, when the Colstrip power plant owners based in the Pacific Northwest tried to pull out, Senator Fitzpatrick introduced a series of bills to keep them from leaving. One bill that passed imposed a $100,000 fine for every day they didn’t pay their share of the operating costs.
Steve Fitzpatrick: To have somebody from another state reach into our state and tell us what we’re supposed to do with facilities and plants in our state, yeah, that’s frustrating.
Jonathan Jones: The bills were declared unconstitutional by the courts in October 2022, but that hasn’t discouraged Senator Fitzpatrick and other lawmakers from fighting to ensure the state’s continued reliance on fossil fuels. During the 2023 legislative session, Republicans passed a flurry of these kinds of bills. There was a bill to limit environmental lawsuits over fossil fuel projects, a bill to add a hefty tax for charging electric vehicles, a bill to allow coal mining expansions with limited review, and a bill to weaken water quality protections for coal mines. All of these proposals were signed by the governor and became law.
Jason Small: Mr. Chair, members of the [inaudible] for your consideration.
Jonathan Jones: And then, there was Senate Bill 228.
Jason Small: Basically, this bill preemptively stops any locality from banning fossil fuels and the tools, appliances, or equipment that utilize it.
Jonathan Jones: Senate Bill 228 became law too, making it illegal for local governments to take action to limit fossil fuels in their cities and towns. Senator Jason Small was its primary sponsor.
Jason Small: Coal and Montana is no different than potatoes in Ireland. I mean, that’s something we got and we’ve got it in spades and that’s our great equalizer, right?
Jonathan Jones: Senator Small is from the Colstrip area and a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. When he’s not at the state house, he works at the power plant as a boiler maker.
Jason Small: There’s nothing in the state financially that coal doesn’t touch. That’s something even some of the most remote places in the state, there’s some mines there, and those mines keep everybody living a good lifestyle. They’re educating kids. We sprinkle coal dust all over the state.
Jonathan Jones: He scoffed at the notion that the coal industry’s days are numbered.
Jason Small: Oh hell no, coal’s not dead. There isn’t that much reliable power out there and reliable power you’re going to get is from gas. It’s from propane natural gas, methane, it’s from coal. Those are the ones that are always going to be there when you need them.
Jonathan Jones: If there’s one company that seems to benefit the most from these kinds of policies, it’s NorthWestern Energy, the largest single provider of electricity in Montana. The company finances a small army of lobbyists every legislative session. In 2023, NorthWestern lobbied for bills to weaken oversight of coal mining expansions, bills increasing taxes on electric vehicles, and bills restricting solar energy.
News Anchor: NorthWestern Energy is planning to build a new 250 million natural gas plant in Laurel.
Jonathan Jones: The company also supported a bill that allows state regulators to approve big new capital projects like building a new power plant without having to demonstrate it’s actually the best deal for Montanans. And NorthWestern supported that bill while it was building a brand new methane gas plant. The new plant started construction in 2022 and they built it on the banks of the Yellowstone River in Steve Krum’s family’s backyard.
Steve Krum: We’re just south of Yellowstone River, just south of the plant location currently being built by Northwest Energy. I just don’t understand why you’d build a plant like this here.
Jonathan Jones: Steve is a retired oil refinery worker who’s lived in the area his whole life. He wasn’t the only one upset about the plant. Other local residents and environmental groups opposed it since it was first announced in 2021. They say NorthWestern started building before getting the proper zoning permits.
Steve Krum: This thing was being pushed as quickly and as fast as it can. They had no concern for the people here whatsoever. They had zero community meetings to get the people on board, the neighbors that live right next to them.
Jonathan Jones: The new gas plant is projected to emit more than 769,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of nearly 170,000 cars. Concerned for his community, Steve became part of a lawsuit launched by the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center. The suit claims the state unlawfully granted NorthWestern a permit to build the gas plant because it failed to do an adequate environmental review.
Steve Krum: We all know that we got climate issues, we know that. They’re using this as a step to quick money because it’s the most expensive way other than coal to fire a generating plant to get the biggest return they can to their stockholders.
Jonathan Jones: This spring, judge Michael Moses ruled in the plaintiff’s favor. He ordered NorthWestern to halt construction of the gas plant. The plant has been sitting half constructed for months. This win was one of many for environmental groups filing suits against the state for permitting fossil fuel expansions. The judge’s ruling riled Montana’s Republican lawmakers.
Steve Fitzpatrick: So what the judge did, I think was outrageous. It flies in the face of law. It was probably one of the more atrocious pieces of judicial activism I’ve ever seen and we’ve seen a lot of bad decisions out of this judge.
Jonathan Jones: That’s Senator Fitzpatrick again, speaking on the floor of the Montana Senate this April. A few weeks after the ruling, the Republican super majority suspended its own rules to introduce a controversial new bill at the last minute.
Steve Fitzpatrick: This decision by the judge, it threatens every individual project in the state of Montana. This could be refineries, this could be mines, this could be anybody with an air quality permit, and we all know that each individual project is never going to change the temperature of the earth.
Jonathan Jones: The ruling and the lawsuit over the new gas plant were all about how the state failed to assess the environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions, so the new bill would prevent state agencies from considering the potential impact of climate change altogether.
Interviewee: Senator Small.
Jason Small: Yes, thank you, Mr. President. House bill 971 makes it clear that unless and until Montana policymakers enact laws to regulate carbon, a procedural review does not include a climate analysis.
Jonathan Jones: In other words, House bill 971 explicitly prohibits all state agencies from considering climate change and greenhouse gas emissions when reviewing projects that could harm the environment.
Jason Small: We’re not going to allow endless litigation to stop projects and industry in the state of Montana.
Jonathan Jones: More than a thousand people submitted comments with the vast majority in opposition to the bill and more than 60 people testified against it.
Steve Krum: My name is Steve Krum, K-R-U-M. I live in Laurel, Montana and I’m opposed to HB 971.
Interviewees: Are we willing to sacrifice our environment to support corporate profits?
I’m an engineer and a parent and I speak for all the children who aren’t born yet and all the ones who don’t have a voice yet. Please oppose this bill.
My future and the generations to come after me will be significantly affected.
Think of the legacy you will be leaving our grandchildren.
Jonathan Jones: Nationally, the bill is considered one of the most extreme legislative actions to keep regulators from addressing climate change. After it passed, largely along party lines, it was signed into law by Republican governor Greg Gianforte. Two days later, attorneys for the state cited it when asking a judge to dismiss the youth-led climate lawsuit. The judge declined and ordered the attorneys to prepare for trial.
Al Letson: Coming up, Jonathan kicks the tires on the idea that there’s nothing more reliable, affordable, or sustainable than coal power.
Anne Hedges: How much does wind cost for fuel? Nothing. How much does solar cost for fuel? Nothing. Coal is not cheaper, not on any calculus that anybody is doing today.
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. While he was in Montana, Reveal’s Jonathan Jones talked to many policymakers who were quick to dismiss clean energy. For a lot of them, the commitment to coal and other fossil fuels comes down to jobs, tax revenue, or a disbelief in climate change. And there’s one more thing.
Gary Parry: The sun’s not always going to shine and the wind’s not always going to blow.
Al Letson: In other words, reliability.
Steve Gunderson: The biggest problem that we have in trying to do this changeover to wind, solar, those two especially, is they’re not an on demand. They are when the wind blows, when the sun shines.
Steve Fitzpatrick: The fact of the matter is in the middle of the dead of winter, when it’s super cold, there is no wind blowing.
Jason Small: When the wind’s not blowing, obviously you’re not getting wind power. There’s no solar energy today because it’s snowing.
Al Letson: That was state representatives Gary Parry and Steve Gunderson and Senators Steve Fitzpatrick and Jason Small. Montana’s largest utility company seems to agree. This spring, NorthWestern Energy unveiled its plans for supplying electricity across the state. That plan included burning more coal at the Colstrip power plant for the next two decades and finishing construction on their new gas plant on the Yellowstone River. Utilities across the west are phasing out their coal fire plants and pivoting to renewable energy. So why is one of Montana’s biggest energy players expanding its fossil fuel footprint? Jonathan went to ask the man behind the decisions at NorthWestern, the CEO.
Jonathan Jones: Brian Bird has worked for NorthWestern Energy for two decades. He became CEO at the beginning of 2023. Before that, he was president and chief operating officer. I asked him what he’s learned in his time at the head of the organization.
Brian Bird: We have a capacity problem at NorthWestern. And what I mean by capacity, we don’t have a sufficient amount of resources to deliver 24/7 power to our customers.
Jonathan Jones: Right now, NorthWestern imports energy from out of state to address that capacity issue. The company has to balance the electricity demands of its customers and the growing population in Montana. But it’s also a publicly traded company that has to make money for its shareholders, big investment firms like BlackRock and Vanguard, which manage the retirement funds of millions of Americans. Critics say that NorthWestern is sort of doubling down on outdated, inefficient, and polluting power sources because those are the most profitable and they’re making Montanans pay the bill. What’s your response to that?
Brian Bird: I’m doing that because our customers need that capacity. If I can’t deliver it to them, they’re going to be very angry with us as a utility, so it has nothing to do with profitability.
Jonathan Jones: About 58% of the electricity NorthWestern supplies in Montana generates zero carbon emissions. Some of it comes from wind power, some from hydroelectric dams, a along with a little bit of solar. He says the company is committed to adding more renewable resources.
Brian Bird: So it’s a false narrative to say that we’re not doing anything from a renewable energy perspective.
Jonathan Jones: But you are building the new gas plant.
Brian Bird: I am indeed, and that gas plant was built to offset the intermittency of renewables put on the system. I need to balance reliability, affordability, and sustainability, and I’m doing as quickly as I can to not only serve our customers today, but to serve them with cleaner energy in the future.
Jonathan Jones: Why do you think NorthWestern has been such a target of criticism among environmentalists in Montana?
Brian Bird: That’s a great question. I think the fact that we continue to be in a coal fire plant is probably the primary reason.
Jonathan Jones: Do you worry about climate change?
Brian Bird: I do. But in our own backyards, we need to think about, again, balancing reliability, affordability, and sustainability, and serving our customers today with serving our customers in the future, and to balance all of that.
Jonathan Jones: Should NorthWestern be working to rapidly phase out coal fire power plants?
Brian Bird: Should we be rapidly? I think what we’re doing is we’re doing it in a constructive way. We’re looking at how can we find alternatives that are cost effective and are going to be reliable. It’s going to take some time. We can’t close down all the coal fire plants tomorrow and expect that we’re going to have first world reliability electric system.
Jonathan Jones: NorthWestern critics point to other utilities that are investing in large scale wind and solar projects. They say Montana could be a national leader in green energy. That famous big sky that seems to go on forever can charge up solar panels and that vast almost treeless range brings the wind, which can turn huge propellers to make electricity.
The app of my phone says the wind’s blowing about 15 miles per hour, but I have to say, standing out here, it seems a lot windier than that.
About a two hour drive from the Colstrip power plant is the clear water wind farm. It is the largest wind farm in Montana. They kind of look like giant sort of white toothpicks with three blades spinning around. It’s like a big wind turbine forest. The state isn’t necessarily known for its wind, but it ought to be. It’s the fifth windiest state in the country. Other states in North America’s breezy midsection are charging ahead with wind energy, Texas, Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma. But Montana lags behind. It ranks 20th among states in terms of output from wind energy.
I feel like in some ways standing here we’re really at sort of the epicenter of the battle between fossil fuels and clean energy.
And it’s a battle experts say that clean energy could easily win in Montana.
Chris Clack: You are in a state where you’ve got abundant capacity to produce way more energy than you need.
Jonathan Jones: Chris Clack is a renewable energy expert and a mathematician who has studied energy sources in Montana. I asked him about the argument that renewables can’t replace coal and other fossil fuels because they’re just not reliable.
Chris Clack: It’s demonstrably not true, no. I mean, wind and solar are reliable. The sun is always shining, it’s just it’s not overhead all the time. We’d have bigger problems if the sun wasn’t always shining, and the wind is always blowing, always somewhere the wind is blowing.
Jonathan Jones: So why do they use that argument?
Chris Clack: The truth in that argument is that it is variable. It’ll sometimes be windy, it’ll sometimes be cloudy, and so there is truth in the fact that it is variable, but it’s predictable. We have weather forecast, we have climatologies, we have long-term data series now of seeing what the wind and solar does over time.
Jonathan Jones: In other words, you can plan for when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining in one part of the US and draw from other areas when it’s not. In 2021, Chris analyzed sources of electricity in the state on behalf of the environmental group, 350Montana. The first page of the executive summary reads in all caps, THIS IS THE YEAR MONTANA DECIDES HOW TO REPLACE COAL. For this study, Chris created a model showing how the state could drastically reduce carbon emissions in its energy system. He found that Montana could retire its coal plants, never build another gas plant, and still meet people’s energy needs at no additional cost to the consumer. How would Montana do that?
Chris Clack: In a nutshell, it’s really building more wind and solar. You could do it at low cost whilst producing twice as much electricity.
Jonathan Jones: But the inconvenient political and social truth is that wind farms and solar panels, at least right now, don’t help the economy like coal does. Renewables don’t create the same number of long-term well-paying jobs as a strip mine or a coal fire power plant, and renewables don’t replace the tax revenue that a town like Colstrip, Montana depends on. I posed this problem to Anne Hedges, co-director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, who advocates phasing out coal in this state. How do you replace those good paying jobs?
Anne Hedges: You probably don’t, let’s be real. I’m, I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, those are really good jobs. They pay a lot, they pay way above average, those people are super fortunate to have had those jobs for as long as they have, which is why we need to plan for that transition.
Jonathan Jones: And eventually, even without an energy transition, the coal will run out. Anne says pretending that coal fire power plants can operate forever is a disservice to the workers, their communities, and the planet at large.
Anne Hedges: We can’t just say we’re going to ignore the climate crisis, we’re going to say that these jobs are more important than people’s health, than people’s wellbeing. Let’s go talk to people after hurricanes in this country and say how they feel about it. They’d like to have jobs too and their jobs are disrupted.
Jonathan Jones: Renewables won’t immediately replace jobs and they don’t satisfy the people who are skeptical of climate change, but Anne says there’s another incentive. Switching to renewable energy will dramatically lower the cost of producing electricity.
Anne Hedges: How much does wind cost for fuel? Nothing. How much does solar cost for fuel? Nothing. Coal is not cheaper, not on any calculus that anybody is doing today.
Jonathan Jones: And she says Montanans would see the difference every month.
Anne Hedges: And that is their utility bills and how much are they paying and is there a way for them to pay less.
Jonathan Jones: The short term jobs, the tax revenue right now are a political deal breaker in Montana, but other states are modeling a different approach. In 2019, Colorado created an office of just transition to help communities and workers shift away from the mining and burning of coal. That includes working with utilities and mining companies to bridge the gap of lost jobs and revenue. Colorado’s largest utility plans to stop burning coal altogether by 2030. And about 20 miles down the road from Colstrip, the community college on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation recently got a 1.8 million federal grant for workforce development and training in renewable energy. Rancher, Jeanie Alderson wishes Montana’s political leaders would follow suit and pivot away from coal too.
Jeanie Alderson: This one might be a double band.
Jonathan Jones: It’s branding day on the ranch for the calves born this spring. One by one, the ranchers lift each animal onto a special table. It closes to cradle the cow while a hot brand is pressed against its hide. A meadowlark sings from a fence post and spring grass is greening on the hill.
Jeanie Alderson: The land itself, it’s so much more than just home. I feel really lucky to just have this space and to get to live with my family, to have my boys grow up working with their dad and their granddad. Everything that I am, that my family has been, that will be seems all tied up in this place.
Jonathan Jones: Jeanie told me earlier that she and her husband changed the way they ranch in order to stay in business, to stay on the land, and she says it’s time for the power companies and legislators tied to coal to adapt too.
Jeanie Alderson: We have to recognize that these coal jobs were good jobs, and losing that is devastating, and we’ve got to come up with the way so workers aren’t left without a way to take care of their families. But we also have to realize that we’ve got to find a way to take care of the land and water first because it is what’s going to be here long past us.
Al Letson: Our lead producer for this week’s show is Stephen Smith. Today’s story was reported in partnership with Montana Free Press. Their reporter, Amanda Eggert contributed reporting and research. Jenny Casas edited the show with help from Kate Howard. Special thanks to reporter Mara Silvers and editor Brad Tyer of Montana Free Press and Yellowstone Public Radio.
And some exciting news, our new documentary Victim/Suspect is now streaming on Netflix. The doc follows reporter Rachel de Leon’s investigation into a troubling trend, young women who report sexual assaults to the police then end up as suspects. Victim/Suspect, stream it now on Netflix.
Nikki Frick is our fact checker, Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel, our production manager is Steven Rascon, score and sound design by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had helped this week from Claire C-Note Mullen. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal, our COO is Maria Feldman, our interim executive producers are Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers. Our theme music is by [inaudible] Lightning.
Support for Reveal’s provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D and Catherine T Macarthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.