Town That Helped Power Northwest Feels Left Behind In Shift Away From Coal

Jun 10, 2017
Originally published on June 13, 2017 6:38 am

Colstrip, Mont., is about 750 miles away from Seattle, as the crow flies. Politically, the two places may be even further apart. And yet, they're connected.

If you're turning the lights on in the Pacific Northwest, some of that electricity may be coming from Colstrip. And if you're in Colstrip, wondering how long your own lights will stay on, you're likely looking west.

America's energy system is a web, connecting inland to coast and urban to rural. And as that system shifts, people are starting to ask: What — if any — support should a town like Colstrip get from places like Seattle or the federal government as the town enters an uncertain future?

Despite the recent promises from the Trump administration to bring the coal industry back, America's energy system is shifting increasingly toward natural gas, wind and solar. Economics are driving the change. But so are politics.

In the week since President Trump announced that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, a broad coalition of cities, states, businesses and universities have promised to uphold the agreement and reduce their carbon emissions. "We're still in," is their motto. Washington state was already in. It has a commitment to use less coal.

Colstrip is a coal town. And even though the challenges it's facing existed long before Trump's announcement, people there are angry about the push to change America's energy demands. They feel like they don't have a say. And they fear they'll be left behind.

A town built on coal

Colstrip is a company town that's built on coal — coal that's scraped from beneath the surrounding sage-covered hills and trucked or transported past tree-lined streets and idle train cars, to a towering four-unit power plant at the heart of this tidy, tucked-away town. It's there — at the second-largest coal-fired power plant in the West — that the coal is burnt, heating water to steam, generating 2,094 megawatts of electricity that travels by wire across Montana to the greater Pacific Northwest.

"That's who we are," says Lu Shomate, the director of the town's historical center. "If it wasn't for the coal, and then the generation of course, none of us would be here."

And what's here, she says, is good. Colstrip isn't some dusty, dreary, down-and-out town.

There's an 18-hole golf course, a 32,000-square-foot recreation center and 32 parks that are all free to the town's 2,300 residents. The streets are wide and clean. The estimated median household income in Colstrip is $84,145. In Montana overall, it's $47,169.

But recently, things have started to change. A lawsuit filed by two environmental groups alleged that the Colstrip Generating Station hadn't updated its technology to meet air quality requirements. A couple of the utilities that own the plant settled, agreeing to close the older two of the plant's four units by 2022. There have since been indications it could happen sooner.

On top of that, the two biggest customers for Colstrip's power — Washington and Oregon — announced long-term commitments to get off coal.

The combined uncertainty has sent real estate values in Colstrip plummeting, leaving people in sunken mortgages. Kerri Kerzmann, who helps run the town's before-school programs for coal workers' children, says her house has gone from being worth "a couple hundred thousand dollars," to maybe $60,000 or $70,000 now.

Resident and activist Lori Shaw says a "crisis fatigue" has set in.

"You're so used to being on the edge for so long," she says, "It's almost like you forget to panic anymore, even though it is panic-worthy. It's like, yeah, I know we might lose everything next month. What's new?"

Shomate says the same thing that's happened in Appalachia and other parts of blue-collar America is starting to happen here: "The middle class is being ripped apart."

Shomate, Kerzmann and others in Colstrip want a plan to help the town now and as it transitions into an uncertain future. All say that coal should be part of that plan, but they know it can't be the only part.

"We know there are better ways of doing things, so let's work on that together," Shomate says. "But we're not getting that support. It's just: shut it down, dirty, filthy coal."

Planning for an uncertain future

A plan for a town like Colstrip requires resources. It needs money. And if you ask people here where that money should come from, they'll point west.

"There would be no Facebook. There would be no Bill Gates. None of that would be in Seattle without low-cost, reliable power that comes from Colstrip, Mont.," says Duane Ankney, a state senator who represents the town in the state legislature.

The reality is a bit more complex. Hydroelectric power provides the bulk of Washington's energy. But coal has historically played a role there as well.

The construction of the power plant in Colstrip, which began operating in 1970s, was actually spurred by power companies in the Pacific Northwest that wanted another source of electricity for the region's fast-growing energy demands. Before that, it was the Northern Pacific Railroad that turned this coal-rich patch of prairie into a company town to provide coal for the rails.

Today, Washington-based Puget Sound Energy owns one-third of Colstrip's electric output, enough to power 500,000 homes in western Washington.

That history is well-known in Colstrip and it factors largely into the local sentiment that outsiders should be partly responsible for the town's future.

At Alison's Pantry, a coffee shop in town, Hugh Mannix and a group of older men who call themselves the "Rusty Zippers" sneer when they talk about Washington's efforts to get off coal.

"So we can put up with all the pollution and they get the gravy," Mannix says. "And that's gone on for 40 years. And we took it. We run with it. We made it successful and now these prima donnas out there can just walk away? Well, no. Pay your way out of it now."

Ankney, the state senator, proposed a bill in Montana's legislature earlier this year that would require utilities to do just that.

There are six utilities that have ownership in Colstrip's plant. All are based out of state.

Ankney's bill would have required them to help pay for the social costs of decommissioning the plant, by making them have "a plan in place for the workers," he says. That plan would include money for lost real estate values, tax revenues and to help re-train the workers.

The bill, Ankney says, was about accountability to the state of Montana and to the workers who made the utilities what they are.

"I think that would go a long ways, to cop a phrase, to make America great again. It's when you have corporate responsibility," says Ankney, a Republican and retired coal mine superintendent.

The bill failed in Montana's legislature. It was fought by utilities and environmental groups, who feared that it would scare away future investment in Montana from renewable energy companies.

A related bill, which required that the utilities have a plan and money set aside for environmental remediation at the plant site, passed.

Shaw, the community activist, says it seems like there's more interest in helping "grass and dirt" than people.

A federal plan

At the union hall in Colstrip, Rex Rogers shares some of the same frustrations as Shaw and others.

Rogers is the business manager for the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He represents about 250 workers at Colstrip's power plant. And he too wants to see a plan in place to help those workers when parts of the plant start to close down.

The irony is that there was a plan: President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan.

Rogers keeps a copy of it at the union hall. He lifts it — all 1,560 pages — from a wood side table and plops it down on a table in the middle of the room.

"I wouldn't have printed it, if I'd known how big it was going to be," he says.

The Clean Power Plan was Obama's biggest effort to combat climate change. It would have required that states like Montana reduce their carbon emissions. Rogers was on Montana's team that studied how that would play out on the ground. The expectation, he says, is that it would have forced the closure of the two older units at the town's power plant.

Put another way: "The impact on Colstrip would have been exactly what we're seeing now," he says.

Only now, the Clean Power Plan is gone. Montana was one of dozens of states that successfully sued to stop the plan. Trump has ordered that it be repealed.

"Well the concern with that is, built into the Clean Power Plan was [a section] about transitioning, taking care of the workers and those parts of it," Rogers says.

Rogers is referring to Obama's Power+ Plan, which aimed to give resources to "assist communities and workers that have been affected by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations, and coal-related supply chain industries due to the changing economics of America's energy sector."

It was the Obama administration's way of saying: We know the market is changing; here's our plan to help cushion the fall.

Now, Rogers says, the cushion is gone and there's nothing being proffered by the new administration to replace it.

"Even though we won the 'war on coal,' it doesn't appear that there was anything in that for the workers," he says.

Rogers' opinion of the Clean Power Plan is not widely shared in Colstrip. Most people in the town are happy to see it, and other Obama-era regulations on the coal industry, gone or on their way out.

"With Trump in there doing some of the things that he's doing to eliminate some of those needless regulations, I think it's going to make a positive impact here," says Colstrip Mayor John Williams.

If nothing else, he says, it's nice to have a president who supports coal.

A difficult question

While Trump's never-say-die approach to the coal industry is refreshing to some, it's worrisome to others.

"It appears that that comes with a price of: then let's pretend that the transition isn't happening," says Julia Haggerty, a professor at Montana State University. "That, I think, does not do a service to the places that are experiencing the transition."

Haggerty studies efforts to help struggling coal towns. She's spent a lot of time in Colstrip and other coal towns in the Mountain West. And she knows how hard it is to even have a discussion about transitions in those places.

"These are purpose-built energy towns," she says. "So it's pretty tricky, I think, to ask 'what comes next?' That's often a painful conversation to have because what comes next in a remote, isolated energy-producing town is really a very difficult thing to know."

She says it's important that these conversations happen though; that plans are made for the future as the nation moves further away from coal.

Those conversations, Haggerty says, need to include places like Colstrip that have historically provided energy and places like Seattle who no longer want it.

As a professor, she sees students who have very little understanding of where energy comes from and where it's traditionally come from. That lack of recognition, she says, "to the places and resources that have created enormous wealth for the region, I think, really contributes to the bitterness and the difficulty of these conversations."

And, she says, it's contributing to the divisions that exist in America today.

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