A large utility, a state commission, and a surprising new environmental coalition

March 6, 2016

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining over 100 of my fellow energy policy geeks as we filled to overflow capacity the hearing room of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). It was the largest crowd ever to attend a UTC hearing, and we were there to voice objections to a plan by Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to continue operation of the coal plant in Colstrip, Montana, for another two decades at least.

“The Colstrip coal plant is the biggest source of carbon pollution in the entire Northwest.”

–Sierra Club

The Sierra Club organized the activity, including transportation to and from Olympia where the commission does its work. The venerable environmental group has gotten involved because approximately 30 percent of PSE’s electricity comes from Colstrip, and PSE is the single largest owner of that plant. 

Among the wide array of experts and interested citizens participating in the hearing were Montana ranchers directly harmed by the pollution emanating from smokestacks and collecting in ponds around Colstrip, public officials from both Montana and Washington (Nathaniel Jones, Mayor Pro Tem of the City of Olympia, was particularly eloquent), and scientists and attorneys speaking to the degradation of water and air quality attributable to the Colstrip plant.

For its part, the three-member UTC board patiently listened to some five hours of testimony, asking numerous questions and sparring occasionally with environmental attorneys when the latter seemed to be asking more of the commission than its defined charter permitted. Essentially that charter is an economic one: to determine whether a private utility can pass the cost of capital investment on to its customers via their electricity bills. But commissioners admitted that environmental and even moral arguments could ultimately factor in to their economic analysis and decisions.

So, will this large-scale effort to influence the UTC amount to anything? I am genuinely encouraged that it will, at the very least, cause the commission to recommend to PSE that it revise its 20-year plan, and provide some specifics around retiring at least the two older of Colstrip’s four coal-fired boilers.

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