HELENA — In a late-session move, Republicans on a Senate committee Friday revived a portion of dead bill meant to help NorthWestern Energy acquire more of the Colstrip power plants and stuffed it into another bill still in play.
The 7-5, party-line vote took some language from Senate Bill 379 – which was killed in a House committee on Wednesday – and inserted it into a bill that originally had to do with regulation of public-water supplies.
The new language says if NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, has to acquire “replacement power” because of an outage at the Colstrip plant, state regulators must allow NorthWestern to recover those costs.
Democrats objected to the gambit, but Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip – the sponsor of the amendment – insisted it was narrowly drawn language that applies in only limited circumstances.
“I think we can read a boogeyman into this bill if you want, but it just ain’t there,” he said. “I just don’t see any hairy creatures in this bill.”
He said the legal requirement that NorthWestern be reimbursed for its costs applies only if the plant shutdown is related to testing or repairs to bring the plant into environmental compliance.
The amended measure, House Bill 695, now heads to the Senate floor.
The amendment also includes language about nuclear power, saying the state cannot deny a permit to a new nuclear-power plant just because federal regulations don’t provide for a permanent storage spot for nuclear waste.
Democratic senators said Republicans are “hijacking” another bill to insert language that may have a much broader impact on NorthWestern electric customers than described.
“It’s clearly in the best interest of one company, who makes a lot of money,” said Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman. “And we’re putting more money in their pockets, and taking it out of the pockets of ratepayers.”
Ankney said the language is to prevent the state Public Service Commission from denying legitimate costs to the company.
NorthWestern has objected to PSC rulings in past cases, when the commission rejected several million dollars of costs the company said it incurred when buying power to supply customers after an outage at the Colstrip plant – which is partially owned by NorthWestern.
SB379, which was killed by the House Energy Committee on Wednesday, included the outage reimbursement language that was inserted into HB695 Friday.
SB379 also had included language that required the PSC to approve potentially millions of dollars of cost recovery for NorthWestern if it acquired a larger share of the Colstrip 4 power plant.
Critics of the bill said it improperly abolished PSC rate-regulation authority that has been in place for decades, in the name of helping NorthWestern profit from a coal-fired power plant whose costs are now above the current market.