Colstrip power plant

Cleaning up the coal ash ponds in Colstrip could provide more than 200 jobs for a decade, according to a Montana conservation group.

The U.S. Department of Energy testified Thursday that it’s working with the owners of the troubled Colstrip Power Plant to extend the life of the facility.

Speaking before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, DOE officials referenced plans to pipe carbon dioxide from the power plant to an oil play in southeast Montana. Steven Winberg, DOE assistant secretary on fossil fuel energy, made revelations while taking questions from Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. The hearing was video streamed.

It was the third time in the past couple months Daines has sought federal aid for Colstrip. Daines has suggested Colstrip pollution could be pumped into the ground to free up petroleum, similar to the $190 million Obama administration investment in Petra Nova coal plant in Texas.

“The Department of Energy, the Fossil Energy Office, has been working with Colstrip owners and operators. We’ve done two studies to date,” Winberg told Daines. “One of those studies was to evaluate ways to improve the efficiency of the Colstrip Power Plant, and of course when you improve the efficiency you reduce emissions. So that’s key. And the second study we did evaluated (carbon capture and sequestration) opportunity for as you say ‘enhanced oil recovery,’ and I believe that was to a southeast Montana oilfield. So yes, you have my commitment. We're happy work with Colstrip to see what opportunities there are to keep the plant open and reduce its emissions and provide a value stream for enhanced oil recovery.”

Petra Nova’s carbon pollution is captured from the 240-megawatt facility and piped to oil fields 80 miles away. The federal funds came from former President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus.

Clean coal technology has struggled to deliver results, but carbon capture as a means of keeping Colstrip burning is popular with Montana politicians, including Gov. Steve Bullock, now a Democratic presidential candidate. Daines is co-sponsoring a bill, the Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology Act, that would direct DOE to make more carbon investments in carbon capture and sequestration projects. 

He also is co-sponsoring a bill to extend tax credit subsidies for refined coal, conditioned to reduce pollutants.

Colstrip “shares a lot of similarities to the Petra Nova site and is thus uniquely situated for further investment in innovation,” Daines said. “Of course, Montana has more recoverable coal than any state in the United States. Colstrip, like Petra Nova, is a large-scale coal plant that with a new pipeline can gain access to a nearby oil field. We’re out in the proximity to the Bakken. There is also strong support from the community and interest from stakeholders to use the carbon from Colstrip for enhanced recovery.”

The collaboration to keep Colstrip operating started a few years ago with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, according to Talen Energy, which operates the power plant and has an ownership share.

“We are pleased to be exploring opportunities for new projects with the DOE. These studies were started at the request of Gov. Bullock and have been supported by the congressional delegation, particularly Sen. Daines and (Republican Rep. Greg) Gianforte, who are strong supporters of Colstrip,” said Taryne Williams, of Talen Energy. “We are hopeful that the economics will enable something to be utilized at Colstrip.”

A lot has changed since the studies were initiated. Ron Roberts, director of the thermal resources for Puget Sound Energy, said at the time of the studies, Talen and Puget Sound Energy had made plans to close Colstrip Units 1 and 2 by 2022. The two companies evenly split ownership of Colstrip’s two oldest units, which they agreed in 2016 to decommission as part of a pollution lawsuit settlement. The power plant’s other two units were less encumbered than they are now.

Carbon capture technology isn’t cheap, and Puget couldn’t justify adding the equipment to Units 3 and 4, which were going to be 35 to 40 years old by the time of installation. It wasn’t a good investment of customer money, Roberts said, given the short period of time the units would remain useful.

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Now, Colstrip owners doing business in Washington — Puget, PacifiCorp and Avista — face a December 2025 deadline to stop delivering coal power to customers in that state. Those terms were established under a new carbon-free energy law advocated by Gov. Jay Inslee who, like Montana’s Bullock, is seeking the Democratic 2020 nomination for president.

Inslee’s green energy law, passed through the Legislature as Senate Bill 5116, is perhaps the nation’s most unflinching climate policy and allows no exceptions for coal power strapped to carbon capture technology.

“I can say that carbon capture and sequestration would not impact the 2025 coal requirement or Avista’s depreciation schedule as stated in SB 5116,” said Marie Tyrie, of Avista Corp. “The law states we cannot serve our Washington customers with coal, regardless of carbon mitigation, and the depreciation provision remains the same as well.”

South Dakota-based NorthWestern Energy, which services 370,000 Montana customers, said it’s had no discussions with the Department of Energy regarding Colstrip.

“NorthWestern Energy is not involved in any active discussions with the federal Department of Energy Office. NorthWestern Energy is not aware of any collaborations of the owners of Colstrip on this topic,” said Jo Dee Black, of NorthWestern.

Andrea Platt of Portland General Electric said the Oregon utility is obligated to remove coal power from its portfolio by 2035 under state law. It was unclear if the company had ever been in discussion with DOE about carbon sequestration.

The latest carbon sequestration discussion comes as Rosebud Mine, which services the power plant, emerges from bankruptcy and bankruptcy proceedings begin for Cloud Peak Energy, which owns nearby Spring Creek mine.

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