Updated: Coal-Fired Power Plant Held Up As Example Of ‘War On Coal’ Gets Cleaner

A company that pledged at the height of the 2012 election that environmental regulations would shutter its Montana power plant announced Monday it will now invest in pollution upgrades.

In the fall of 2012, PPL Montana claimed it would need to invest $38 million in its coal-fired Billings plant to meet the federal mercury and air toxics standards. The CEO had said they “cannot justify that level of spending.” On Monday, the company announced it will spend $10 million to upgrade emissions controls in an agreement with the state.

Along with other examples in 2012, Republicans used PPL Montana to argue that Democrats pursued a “war on coal.” For instance, then-Senate candidate Denny Rehberg (R-MT) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) highlighted it in campaign stops and ads against incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT). Rehberg promised to reverse the “job-killing” regulations if elected to the Senate.

Tax credits for wind energy, a booming energy market in Montana, was another target the company cited at the time. But an August SEC filing from the company noted a different narrative: “Current depressed wholesale market prices for electricity and natural gas have resulted from general weak economic conditions and other factors, including the impact of expanded domestic shale gas development.”

As always, economic forces unrelated to regulations have triggered the plant closures. The price of natural gas has dropped dramatically in recent years, meaning that utilities have turned away from coal. With natural gas prices creeping up again, utilities are more willing to keep their coal plants open. Generally, the plants that have closed are also ancient facilities, with an average age of 58 year old.

This plant isn’t evidence of a regulatory “war on coal.” Contrary to conservative wisdom, environmental regulations boost the economy and will translate into up to 135,000 jobs in 2015 alone.

No, this plant is evidence that natural gas is a dubious “bridge” to a low-carbon future. As soon as unsustainably low gas prices started rising, coal generation started rising again, too — from tied with natural gas generation in April 2012 to more than 50% higher than gas generation a year later.


An earlier version of this post indicated this means the company will likely change its decision to close the plant. The company’s government spokesman David Hoffman said it’s highly unlikely this will alter the decision to mothball the plant. “There would have to be some pretty radical changes in the economic environment in order to reverse that mothballing decision,” Hoffman said. “But if it was reversed, this settlement then goes to the S02 emissions in Yellowstone County, and would certainly reduce the amount of S02 put into the atmosphere.” The headline has been changed for accuracy.

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7 Responses to Updated: Coal-Fired Power Plant Held Up As Example Of ‘War On Coal’ Gets Cleaner

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    “A war on coal”? Sounds just like our own dear Tony Abbott. Amazing how they all sound like each other but just another dimension of globalization I suppose, ME

  2. Gregory Peters says:

    Quick note: Rehberg’s first name is Dennis, or Denny (not Danny).

  3. Tami Kenned says:

    Let’s see… What did Obama ramble about in IA and SOTU??? Something about the climate. Also taking executive actions available to him if Congress unwilling…

  4. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Hardly Liberal, more like Tea Party. Our own Luke Simpkins(Cowan) knows all the talking points.

  5. This report isn’t correct: The settlement reached Monday commits PPL Montana to installing an additional $10m worth of SO2 pollution controls on the Corette Plant if the utility keeps it running. This is in addition to the $38m baghouse required by the EPA.

    If anything, PPL says, the settlement makes mothball plans more likely.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Both are true Reptilians. Australia can lead the world in rabid Reptiles.

  7. Will says:

    I don’t see how posts like this are helpful. If we’re going to deal with climate change then we must shut down a large number of aging coal power plants. It’s time to go on the offensive by making the case that it’s a good thing rather than these weak defensive and somewhat disingenuous denials about the reality that coal plants will be shuttered. We need Obama to declare a regulatory war on coal before the price of natural gas goes back up or else we’ll switch back to coal instead of clean energy.