Despite the conclusion of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) that air quality measures are adequate in the operation of NorthWestern Energy’s Laurel Generating Plant, a Thirteenth Judicial District Court has ruled that the DEQ’s issuance of a permit in 2021 was unlawful. The decision, made by District Court Judge Michael Moses, brings into question the air quality assessments done by DEQ specialists and invalidates the permit the state agency issued. That means construction must be halted on the Yellowstone County Generating Station near Laurel, which the utility company claims is essential to meet the future energy needs of Yellowstone County.

NorthWestern Energy responded saying they will seek an immediate stay to allow continued construction, and will appeal the decision. Company spokespeople noted that while the District Court found only two limited issues with Montana DEQ’s analysis, “… the court unfortunately took the extreme step to vacate the air permit.”

Neighbors of the proposed project, called the “Thiel Road Coalition”,who have been organized in part by the Montana Environmental Information Center, (MEIC) say they are concerned about the plant’s impacts on their health, property, businesses and the Yellowstone River.

Earthjustice represents MEIC and Sierra Club in the lawsuit, in conjunction with four citizens, who filed suit on October 21, 2021, challenging the permit for NorthWestern Energy’s proposed 175-megawatt methane gas-fired power plant located next to the CHS Refinery at Laurel. The suit claims the DEQ’s evaluations did not consider the plant’s potential “greenhouse gas emissions and associated climate impacts in Montana,”

 “We are very concerned that this project will harm people who live near the proposed plant,” said local resident, Steve Krum. “Every time we have raised concerns about the impacts this plant will have on the quality of life of the neighbors and the Yellowstone River, those concerns have been dismissed.”

In a press release, NorthWestern Energy stated that it “appreciates that Montana District Court Judge Michael Moses supported the majority of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s air quality permit…”  issued to NorthWestern Energy “after significant review and analysis for construction of the Yellowstone County Generating Station.”

In its press release, MEIC stated, “The Court’s ruling critiqued DEQ for failing to analyze the gas plant’s greenhouse gas emissions and associated climate impacts in Montana, as well as the plant’s impacts on our quality of life.” MEIC further stated that “if constructed, the Laurel Generating Station would emit at least 769,706 tons per year of climate-harming greenhouse gasses. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of 167,327 passenger vehicles.”

The Montana DEQ issued the air quality permit to NorthWestern Energy on Sept. 8, 2021, “After significant review and analysis,” said NorthWestern Energy Vice President of Supply and Montana Government Affairs John Hines, who oversees environmental compliance and stewardship. Hines expressed his concerns saying, “This ruling appears to require new criteria to be analyzed and jeopardizes reliable service for our Montana customers during critical times when customer energy demand is high, the coldest nights and the hottest days, typically times when renewable resources are generating little or no energy.  Our air permit was reviewed and approved by the DEQ using standards that have been in effect for many years. ..We will work with the DEQ to determine the path forward.”

MEIC said in its press release, that the DEQ violated the Montana Environmental Policy Act by issuing the permit “without fully evaluating the environmental consequences of plant construction and operation.”

“My business, my family and my home will be directly impacted by NorthWestern’s proposed project. We have raised our concerns every step of the way, and state and local governments keep ignoring us,” said Kasey Felder, a landowner, small business owner and member of the Thiel Road Coalition. “We were worried we would get a ‘Braveheart’ ending to this story.  It’s a relief to know the scales of justice are still in balance, and the little guy can be heard.”

“For too long it’s felt like a David versus Goliath battle. I’m so tired of the government and NorthWestern ignoring us. We live here. We have raised concerns time and time again about the impacts of this plant,” said Carah Ronan, farmer, small business owner and member of Thiel Road Coalition.

John Hines pointed out that NorthWestern Energy relies on the energy market “more than any of our peer energy companies in the region. The region faces an increasing probability of near-term deficits in its energy supply during peak load conditions, and the chance of shortages is expected to grow unless the region invests in new capacity, resources always-available to generate energy in all weather conditions.”

“If it was operating today,” he said, “NorthWestern Energy’s Montana customers could have avoided at least $4.7 million in market purchases from Dec. 20 to 26, 2022 during the Arctic cold front when record low temperatures were set in several areas of Montana.

“The Yellowstone County Generating Station natural gas plant is a critical part of a balanced and affordable portfolio that includes renewables and generation that is available on-demand, 24/7,” said Hines. “A balanced portfolio is essential to support the responsible transition to cleaner generation resources without compromising energy service reliability.”

Although left unidentified, the MEIC press release stated “…lower-cost clean energy resources are available.”

During peak- use NorthWestern Energy needs 1500 megawatts of power. They can generate only 750 megawatts, which forces the utility to go out into the market to purchase as much as 50 percent of the power needed to meet demand. One-third of the power NorthWestern Energy provides to the state is consumed in the Billings area – about 450 megawatts.

As the public demands more “clean energy” from alternative resources, reliance on wind and solar energy is becoming greater, but those energy sources need a dependable back up for “when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.”

The Laurel site is 36- acres purchased from CHS. The property is adjacent to a NorthWestern Energy sub-station and transmission lines, which are being enlarged to accept the energy that is generated.

The $250 million natural gas plant will generate 175 megawatts of electricity, operating reciprocating internal combustion engines. The Laurel Generation Station is projected to be operational by the winter of 2023-24.


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