Montana gas power plant can resume construction, judge rules

FILE - Montana District Judge Michael Moses speaks to attorneys during a court hearing on Sept 15, 2022, in Billings, Mont. The judge has reversed an earlier order that blocked construction of a $250 million natural gas power plant because of climate change concerns. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File) (Matthew Brown, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BILLINGS, Mont. – NorthWestern Energy will resume construction of a natural gas power plant along Montana's Yellowstone River following a two-month delay, a company spokesperson said Friday, after a state judge revived a pollution permit for the project despite lingering concerns over its planet-warming emissions.

Work on the $250 million plant near the town of Laurel was largely halted in April when Judge Michael Moses cancelled its permit and said officials had failed to adequately consider the 23 million tons of greenhouse gases it would emit over several decades.

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But Moses reversed his earlier order late Thursday while an appeal from NorthWestern is pending before the Montana Supreme Court. The judge cited a “changing legal landscape” that includes a new state law that eliminated a requirement for state officials to look at climate impacts from emissions.

Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center said the group was considering its next steps.

Many utilities across the U.S. have replaced coal power with less-polluting natural gas plants in recent years. But the industry remains under pressure to abandon fossil fuels altogether as climate change worsens.

The Montana plant would produce up to 175 megawatts of electricity. Its air permit was challenged in a 2021 lawsuit from the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club.

Moses said restoring the permit could also help avoid future cost increases to customers of Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based NorthWestern, which had warned that the construction delay would drive up the project’s price.

A spokesperson for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Rebecca Harbage, said the agency was pleased the judge recognized his earlier ruling's potential negative impacts on customers.

Steve Krum, a Laurel resident who’s opposed to the plant, said he wasn’t surprised by the judge’s ruling after Montana legislators excluded climate change from permitting decisions.

Lawmakers are “looking out for NorthWestern Energy,” Krum said. “They are giving them what they want.”

A legal challenge by plant opponents is still pending, he said, regarding the decision to build the plant close to town.

“Why would they put a major source of hazardous air pollution right in a populated area?” Krum asked.

The plant is expected to begin serving customers sometime next year, said Jo Dee Black, a spokesperson for NorthWestern.

“We need that additional capacity in Montana, dedicated to serving our Montana customers, for both reliability and affordability,” said Black, adding that the plant would ensure enough electricity is available at times of high demand, such as on hot days or cold nights.

To prevent the worst of climate change’s future harms, including even more extreme weather, the head of the United Nations recently called for rich countries to quit coal, oil and gas by 2040.

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