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Montanans deserve better than NorthWestern’s failed leadership

by Steve Krum
| November 20, 2022 12:00 AM

As the global energy landscape shifts — and the costs to power our homes, ranches, and businesses skyrocket – Montana faces serious challenges. Families and businesses feel the squeeze of rising energy prices as we tighten our belts and make tough budgeting decisions.

NorthWestern Energy recently convinced the Public Service Commission to approve a $92 million increase to our energy bills. The corporation hopes to increase that figure to $170 million during the coming months. Looking at its plan to build a massive new power plant using one of the most expensive energy sources on the market today, it’s clear NorthWestern refuses to show any leadership regarding our energy challenges. In the face of NorthWestern’s failures, it’s up to everyday Montanans and our community officials to take on this challenge.

Here’s the problem: NorthWestern continually refuses to adopt more modern, affordable and efficient energy sources. Instead, the company wants to double down on expensive methane gas despite the soaring costs and risky market volatility. Why? In part, it’s because Montana law has a disturbing policy allowing this investor-owned corporation to receive guaranteed profits for its operating expenses.

In a perversion of a normal market-based system that rewards efficiency and fiscal responsibility, NorthWestern is actually incentivized to build and operate more expensive, less efficient power plants. In NorthWestern’s bizarre world, more upkeep, more maintenance, and more repairs mean more profit. And that profit comes directly from the rapidly growing energy bills we pay each month.

Adding insult to energy, the expensive, maintenance-intensive plants that NorthWestern favors are also some of the most polluting and disruptive to our communities. Which brings me to the massive methane-fired plant NorthWestern is forcing onto my Laurel community.

Immediately next to the iconic Yellowstone River, NorthWestern is barreling forward with a methane-fired power plant that will require eighteen smokestacks – seven stories tall each – towering over an area traditionally used for agriculture and outdoor recreation. The plant will completely disrupt the peace and quiet of this riverfront community with extremely noisy equipment operating 24 hours a day and industrial lighting obscuring our night skies.

We are already confronting air quality challenges in Laurel, and this methane-fired plant will be classified as a Major Source of Hazardous Air Pollutants, which means it will emit cancer-causing pollutants.

NorthWestern has repeatedly cut residents out of the process as it steamrolls forward, seeking creative ways to avoid public input. In an act of staggering arrogance, the corporation is ignoring zoning laws, building an industrial project on an area zoned exclusively for agricultural use.

NorthWestern has also ignored a legal question regarding whether the city or county has jurisdiction over the area’s zoning. Instead of waiting respectfully for clarification from the court regarding jurisdiction, NorthWestern just plows ahead with construction.

Thankfully, we have reason to be optimistic that city officials will show some leadership if the court rules they have zoning jurisdiction. When Laurel residents expressed opposition to this plant and our frustration over NorthWestern’s bullying methods, Mayor Waggoner responded in a public meeting, “I wouldn’t want to be put in that position… We’re caught in a conundrum here between the county, and us (the city), and them (NorthWestern). Whatever we can do, we will do.”

Locals are encouraged by that last sentiment in particular, especially knowing how much time and money the city spent developing a growth management policy that dramatically conflicts with a massive industrial facility disrupting this riverside property.

We expect the courts will properly determine that the city has the right to make zoning decisions in this area. From there, it will be up to Waggoner and the City Council — alongside Laurel residents and Montana energy customers across the state – to demand that NorthWestern stop polluting our communities and saddling us with overpriced energy.

Steve Krum is a Laurel resident, retired oil refinery employee, and member of Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group.

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