BILLINGS — Nearly 100 people gathered outside the Yellowstone County Courthouse Thursday to protest a proposed natural gas pipeline underneath the Yellowstone River in Laurel.
“I wish that Northwestern Energy would be a lot more transparent about what they’re doing,” said Billings resident Mary Fitzpatrick, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council.
The rally was organized by the Northern Plains Resource Council, a Billings-based conservation group. Protestors gathered to voice concerns the project could harm the environment.
“Right now they’re planning to put a pipeline through a very fragile area of the river and the floodplain. There’s wildlife there, there’s osprey nesting there,” Fitzpatrick said.
They also voiced concerns about air pollution.
“We’re trying to lower our carbon footprint and now they’re going to put in, eight, count them, eight methane plants in Montana,” said Northern Plains Resource Council member Priscilla Bell of Laurel.
NorthWestern Energy is planning to add 325 megawatts to its portfolio, which would include the Laurel plant, to meet the required power load for the region. Other projects include a pending agreement to buy into a 50-megawatt battery storage project and a five-year power purchase deal with Powerex, a subsidiary of BC Hydro, for 100 megawatts of hydroelectric power.
While multiple speakers at the rally referenced eight new plants, NorthWestern Energy has not formally proposed building that many.
The project is personal for many who were in attendance.
“We’re also really concerned (about) how close this plant is to where people live 'cause it’s going to have bright lights and make a lot of noise,” Fitzpatrick said.
NorthWestern Energy argues that there’s a big demand for a more permanent source of energy, especially in growing cities like Billings and Laurel.
The natural gas pipeline would supply the company’s proposed new $250 million, gas-fired power plant.
“Between 40 and 50 percent of the energy we need to meet that demand comes from market purchases right now in Montana,” said NorthWestern Energy public relations specialist Jo Dee Black.
NorthWestern Energy wants to use the plant to generate more energy in Montana and avoid outsourcing for more costly power.
“For reliability and for affordability, need to secure more 24/7, on-demand resources so that we have reliable service at reasonable costs,” Black said.
The plant could bring a lot of money to the county. NorthWestern Energy estimates the plant will generate $346 million in property taxes each year.
About $1.26 million would stay in Yellowstone County and the Laurel School District would receive close to $1.5 million.
However, those gathered at the courthouse say the risks outweigh the benefits. They’re hoping to send a message to county commissioners, who are set to meet next week to vote to grant a permit to build the plant.
“We’re used to long fights and we’re here for the long haul,” Fitzpatrick said.