Colstrip: At the intersection of coal and climate change


Thomas Lee/Montana Quarterly

Ninety tons at a time, Baron Stroop operates one of the drag lines at Colstrip’s Rosebud Mine to remove overburden dirt to uncover a coal seam. Coal is the central economic force behind Colstrip and its history.

On a blustery December evening, Gene Wier and his grown son Bryan are wrenching on hand-built hot rods in their machine shop on the edge of Colstrip. There’s bright light, good grease smells, a football game on the TV. They tell me to come on in.

When Gene ran for town council a few years back, he recalls, he was asked to sum up what makes this town of 2,300 residents unique. His answer cut to the basics: “We have a coal plant in our front yard, and a coal mine in our back yard.”

And like most people around here, he likes it that way.

For 30 years, Gene wrenched on miles of pipe and hundreds of valves as a mechanic in the power plant. With his paychecks, he built this machine shop and his log home across the street, socked away money for retirement and for his hot rod hobby. Colstrip was a good town for raising his two boys. Bryan got a job at the mine soon after high school, and now he, too, is a plant mechanic.

All this is on shaky ground, Gene tells me. Colstrip may have survived past layoffs and lawsuits, but now there’s a bigger threat. In bumper-stickerese, it’s the “War on Coal.” It kicked into gear a couple years before his retirement in 2013, he says, “And it’s escalated since.”

Seen another way, it’s the first real stab at halting runaway climate change. Colstrip is home to the second-largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi, by far the biggest source of climate-altering carbon dioxide in Montana. Policies to ratchet back carbon emissions are putting Colstrip in the crosshairs.

So there’s uncertainty—about whether we’ll dodge the worst of global warming, about Colstrip’s future. The two are entwined.

For Gene and others here, it boils down to a basic concern. If the plant closes, he says, “This place would dry up faster than a dandelion sprayed with Roundup.”

Like any Montana town, Colstrip has seen its ups and downs. In 1924 it was not much more than a mining camp, established to provide coal for the Northern Pacific Railway. By the 1950s it had become a solid little town. Then the locomotives switched to diesel, and the bottom fell out.

Montana Power Company, the state’s monopoly utility, bought the whole outfit in 1959, seeing potential for coal-fired electricity. Then, in the early ’70s, the company unveiled plans for the huge Colstrip plant.

Bob Whitehead came here from Miami, one of hundreds of workers who flocked to Colstrip to construct the plant’s first two “units.” (Each unit has its own smokestack and other components.) He met his future wife, Mary Ann, amid the hundreds of trailers crammed onto a flat near the construction site. She’d come from Washington with her parents to work the boom.

As all booms do, this one ended. Construction of the much larger units 3 and 4 was stalled amid lawsuits: the nearby Northern Cheyenne Tribe had secured the strictest air quality standards in the country, while others fought the giant power lines needed to bring the power to West Coast markets. The Whiteheads left.

By the early 1980s Montana Power prevailed, and the Whiteheads returned for the second construction boom. Colstrip’s population swelled to three times what it is today.

Another boom came and went. But Bob landed a job as a plant mechanic in 1985, Mary Ann as a plant laborer two years later. They stuck around for the good jobs, Bob says, but also because Colstrip was “able to offer things that other small towns can’t.”

Like other company towns, Montana Power lured workers to this remote corner of southeast Montana by offering amenities. They chocked the neighborhoods with parks and playgrounds, pitched in for a recreation center. “They were trying to build a model community,” says Rick Harbin, who oversees Colstrip’s parks and recreation program.

Colstrip hit another bump after Montana’s legislature deregulated electric utilities in 1997.

Montana Power sold Colstrip and most of its other power plants to Pennsylvania Power and Light and the power line infrastructure to NorthWestern Energy, then collapsed. In the shuffle, Bob and dozens of other workers were laid off, although most got their jobs back.


Thomas Lee/Montana Quarterly

“It’s steam,” residents assure a visitor photographing the vapors emanating from the Colstrip power plant. Many in Colstrip are sensitive to the perception people may be getting from the town’s strip mine and power plant. They’re afraid visitors on a cold day will see plumes of smoke over the power plant and think it is all pollution.

Montana Power’s unraveling pushed Colstrip to incorporate as a town. Because of the power plant, it inherited a property tax base comparable to Montana’s largest cities. (In 2014 it ranked fifth in the state, ahead of Helena.) The new city government also plowed money into amenities.

Today, Harbin manages 32 parks and other facilities, including the improved, 32,000-square-foot recreation center, which has a weight room and water slide. Bike paths zip through tunnels under the highway. Hiking trails ring a reservoir that has produced state-record catfish. The Whiteheads are fond of the community shooting range and the golf course, one of the nicest and most challenging in Montana, Bob says. It’s all basically free for Colstrip residents, because the plant owners pay around 90 percent of the property taxes.

Add in the small-town feel and low crime, plus the upscale high school, built with $1.7 million in state coal severance tax money, and you can see why the Whiteheads like it here.

Bob retired in 2013, part of a major turnover of the plant’s aging workforce. “Some of them are leaving,” says Jim Atchison, who heads the nonprofit Southeastern Montana Development Corporation. “But it’s amazing how many of them are staying here, because of the quality of life.”

But the quality of life is tied to the property taxes, which are tied to the plant. That’s one of the main reasons the Whiteheads, like Gene Wier, are worried. They’ve ridden the ups and downs. But this time, Bob says, “It’s more serious.”

To understand Colstrip’s vulnerability, follow the coal and the electricity. Start just west of town at the Rosebud Mine, 39 square miles of mostly private land where a 23-foot coal seam is being rooted from beneath 180-odd feet of prairie.

Pull in behind one of the 240-ton coal trucks, its tires taller than you are, as it rumbles down a 100-foot-wide gravel road. See the workers dropping explosives down hundreds of precisely drilled holes, preparing a blast that will crumble another strip of earth and rattle houses in town.

Climb aboard one of the house-sized draglines, the cranes that do the heaviest of the earthmoving. Feel it pivot and drop its truck-sized bucket into the seam, grabbing tons of earth to pile aside.

The 240-ton truck heads down onto the coal, is filled by big yellow loaders, rumbles back up the hill to a conveyor belt, dumps its load. The conveyor speeds the coal the four miles to the power plant, towering over Colstrip’s far edge.

coal graphicFollow the coal up more conveyors into the plant, watch it be ground to fine powder and shot with 700-degree air into the giant boilers. Peer inside at the roaring fireball, each instant vaporizing nearly 200 gallons of Yellowstone River water coursing through the boiler’s tubes, a closed-loop system that reuses the water. Feel the thrum of the pressurized steam spinning RV-sized turbines that turn the generators at 60 revolutions per second.

The power—3 million horsepower at full bore, enough to do the bidding of about 1.5 million homes—is in the wires now, draped on the metal scaffolding marching west out of town. Follow the wires branching into Montana—NorthWestern Energy sources about a quarter of its electricity from here. Or follow the big wires, strung all the way to Puget Sound and beyond.

Many would add: follow the carbon dioxide out of the stacks—unlike other pollutants such as mercury or sulfur dioxide, which are at least partially “scrubbed” from the boiler’s exhaust, it flows freely. Or follow the slurried coal ash to settling ponds that have been contaminating groundwater for years.

The money flows in reverse. The six utilities that own shares in the plant paid the City of Colstrip and Rosebud County more than $13 million in 2014 just to be here, in the form of property taxes. The mine paid nearly $9 million in county taxes. That’s the money for the parks, the schools and other services.

The utilities also pay 360-odd workers—mechanics, electricians, office workers, laborers, and operators, many working 12-hour shifts, day and night—salaries in the range of $60,000 to $80,000 to run the plant. The plant burns about 10 million tons of coal per year, sourced entirely from the Rosebud Mine, which generates tens of millions of dollars in state taxes and federal royalties and pays its 380 workers an average $81,000.

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This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Montana Quarterly. If you’re not already a subscriber, you really should be. Check it out.

That’s why Colstrip’s median household income is close to double the state average of $46,800; its poverty level is half of the state’s 15.3 percent. The town has its rougher edges, and the houses are modest, but there are shiny trucks and campers in the driveways.

The money ripples across the region and beyond, explains Atchison. When the plant is overhauled during a couple of months each spring, hundreds of boilermakers and pipefitters overload Colstrip and fill up motels in Forsyth and Miles City. The need for parts and contractors fuels business in Billings. Spending cash ends up in Billings, Miles City or Sheridan, Wyo., because Colstrip has only one grocery store, one hardware store and a handful of other small shops, restaurants and bars.

The power lines pull dollars from utility customers across the Northwest and funnel the cash to this corner of eastern Montana. But the prosperity is easily cut off.

“We’re a one-horse town,” says Atchison. “That’s one of our weaknesses.”

When I meet Rex Rogers at the union hall behind the Town Pump, he tells me how he followed his brother-in-law to Colstrip in 1980, after big automotive layoffs struck his native Michigan. He landed a job as a security guard, then as a plant laborer, then doing a variety of operations and maintenance work. Now he’s the manager of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union that represents most of the plant workers.

Colstrip is a big union town. Between the mine and the plant, most of the workers are represented by two major unions. With those jobs now on the line, the unions are major players in negotiations, and Rogers is in the middle of it all.

He’s cautious about explaining the threats to the plant, because, as he puts it, “There are a lot of moving pieces.” One gets the sense that there are unseen layers of politics. But he sketches out the basic pieces on the union hall whiteboard.

In the long run, the biggest threat is the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s chief domestic policy on climate change. Enacted in August 2015, the plan requires each state to reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fueled power plants by 2030. Montana must cut its emissions by 47 percent.

Montana has joined other states in suing to overturn the plan, which has been temporarily halted by the U.S. Supreme Court, though the long-term outcome remains in doubt. There’s some flexibility—Montana can purchase emissions credits from other states, for instance. But if the plan stands, few are arguing that compliance won’t cut into Colstrip.

NorthWestern Energy commissioned a report that paints a gloomy picture of the plan’s impacts: shuttering of the Colstrip plant, more than 7,000 jobs gone within the decade, more than $500 million in lost personal income. Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte has drummed up bigger fears, saying total costs might exceed $1 billion. Rogers thinks these are exaggerations. But some of his optimism is shaky too, like his confidence in carbon sequestration, the concept of capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground. It’s an expensive technology still in its infancy.

In the near term, the bigger threat is from Washington state, which uses the greatest share of Colstrip’s electricity.

In 2014, Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, issued an executive order on climate change. The order includes a goal to “reduce and eliminate over time” the use of coal-fired electricity in Washington, including from plants located outside that state.

Meanwhile, Talen Energy, a spin-off that Pennsylvania Power and Light created in part to handle its Colstrip assets after it failed to sell them along with its Montana dams in 2014, has shown numerous signs of wanting out.

It’s complicated, but Talen isn’t like the other, publicly regulated Colstrip utilities. Talen is a free-market seller of electricity, and the business of selling coal-generated electrons has been undercut by new power plants tapping the glut of natural gas unleashed by fracking technology—the kind of power plants that, along with renewable energy and energy efficiency, are filling the shoes of many coal plants that have recently shut down around the country.

In the months following my visit with Rogers, the pieces did indeed move.

In January, Puget Sound Energy, likely seeing Colstrip as a long-term liability and also seeing an opening created by Inslee’s order and Talen’s wavering, backed legislation to create a remediation fund and streamline the utility’s ability to retire units 1 and 2.

Despite a request from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to veto the bill, Gov. Inslee signed it into law in early April.

Around the same time, Puget Sound Energy and others filed a petition with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. The measure sets a January 2017 deadline for a rate case that is expected to include a retirement and cleanup plan for Colstrip units 1 and 2.

In another fast-moving piece, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill in March that requires that state’s utilities to divest from coal by 2030 and increase their share of renewable energy to 50 percent by 2040. That puts pressure on Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp to unload their shares in Colstrip units 3 and 4.

So while there aren’t yet specific plans to shutter of any part of the Colstrip plant, the odds are beginning to stack up against it. And the Clean Power Plan, still in legal limbo, hangs over it all, because even the retirement of units 1 and 2 probably wouldn’t satisfy the federal carbon emission-reduction mandate.

And while that would go a ways toward satisfying the Clean Power Plan, it wouldn’t be enough.

All this comes back to Gene Wier, who knows what a layoff feels like. In 1982 he lost his job at a California steel mill to tougher clean air regulations, the “Reagan recession” and a wave of cheap Japanese steel. He found his Colstrip job through a federal program, set up in 1962 and still active today, that assists workers impacted by foreign imports. The program even paid for his moving expenses.

Now his son Bryan, with kids of his own, “is facing the same thing I did,” Gene says. But the issue here isn’t foreign imports, and there’s no similar program to help laid-off power plant workers or coal miners. “He doesn’t have a safety net.”

Montana history sets a calloused precedent on such matters. You don’t have to look far to find the busted mining town, the busted timber town, the busted ag town. Colstrip has boomed and busted, multiple times. Life goes on, you could say. And if you view climate change as the calamity that it is, the fate of a small town that’s had a good ride on the company dime might seem small by comparison.

But try telling that to the Wiers or the Whiteheads. You can’t help but root for a 21st-century ending in which they don’t get the door closed on them.

Here’s one possible ending, the dream of the Montana Environmental Information Center’s Anne Hedges and others: the Colstrip plant is phased out over time, but that opens up capacity on the transmission lines for scores of wind turbines and solar farms, tended by retrained workers. But, “It takes the community being interested in doing that for it to happen,” Hedges says. And that’s frustrating, because Rogers and others are skeptical, at the least. It’s hard for any proposal to compare to the plant/mine moneymaker. But the ideas are there. And as the pressure notches up, they may spring to life.

My final day in Colstrip, I meet old-timer Bill MacFarlane, who worked 30 years at the mine, helping to build two of the massive draglines. “It wasn’t for the money,” he says. “My family loved it here.”

He takes me down to the old building that served as Colstrip’s schoolhouse in the railroad days. Now it’s a community space, art gallery and museum, with photos of the old town and the construction booms. It will soon have another chapter to record.

MacFarlane seems to view Colstrip’s future with the practicality of an engineer, the way one might approach the challenge of getting coal out of the ground. He’s no greenie, but he wonders why all the big solar arrays are being built in Western Montana, instead of out here, where it’s sunnier.

If he were 30 years younger, he says, he’d take this challenge on. “We need to be thinking about alternatives, and working with other people on that,” he says.

“The future is staring at us.”

Marshall Swearingen freelances from Bozeman, where he grew up. He is a regular contributor to High Country News, the nonprofit bi-weekly newsmagazine “for people who care about the West.” Follow him on Twitter @marshallswearin.

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