About a 950-mile drive southeast from Seattle is the town of Colstrip, Montana, a place that subsists off a 2,300 population and pumps out coal-based energy for Puget Sound Energy, the Bellevue-based utility powering homes in King County for decades.
Colstrip's identity has revolved around coal since its inception in 1924, when the town was created to provide fossil fuel for steam locomotives. On the city’s website, you can find Colstrip's slogan in the header: “The Town That Coal Built—Tomorrow’s Town Today.”
"As a community, we’re pretty much totally dependent on coal mining and power generation," Colstrip’s Mayor John Williams says. "That's the reason Colstrip is here."
But that long history of coal is also riddled with controversy. Despite promises from President Donald Trump to save coal jobs, "tomorrow's town" is looking more obsolete, entangled in a declining industry that faces growing concern over fossil fuels and an international push for climate action.
Seattle activists and environmental groups have been pushing for Puget Sound Energy to end the usage of its coal power plant for years, pointing to evidence it's one of the region’s largest sources of carbon emissions. The plant already has one foot out the door; two of the plant's units are scheduled to shut down by 2022 after allegations from environmental organizations that the plant violated the federal Clean Air Act.
Environmental groups got another big win last week. State regulators approved a Puget Sound Energy settlement that sets 2027 as the end date for the utility to finish paying off the plant's debts. And that settlement marks an end to the plant's financial obligations, leaving environmentalists optimistic that the plant's shutdown will also follow.
So is the Northwest is closer than ever to a future that’s coal-free?
Puget Sound Energy's settlement comes at a time when national demand for coal is dying. Northwest coal plants, like Idaho's North Valmy plant and Washington's Centralia plant, are scheduled to shut down within the next few years. Utilities like PSE are facing more pressure to substitute fossil fuels with clean energy.
Doug Howell, a senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club, is optimistic about the plant’s closure by as early as 2025. He says utilities often consider the end of debt payments as the end of useful life of an asset. The Colstrip coal plant emits 15 to 17 millions tons of of Washington's yearly 100 million tons of carbon emissions, Howell says, and its end would be for the best.
"When the whole thing retires, that will be the single largest greenhouse gas reduction ever achieved in the Northwest,” Howell said.
But shutting down the coal plant's remaining two units would need an agreement by the plant's six owners—they haven't agreed to that shutdown, as pro-coal advocacy groups like the town’s grassroots Colstrip United have been quick to point out. And a PSE official said the utility hasn't made plans to replace Colstrip plant's units with another kind of energy.
What happens to the city of Colstrip itself? The settlement—which involves PSE, environmental groups, the state of Montana, and other parties—also allocates $10 million to the "transition" of Colstrip’s community. That could include economic development and job training, though the details haven't yet been determined, according to PSE.
Mayor Williams says that while $10 million is hardly equal to what the town has economically reaped for PSE over the years—and he doesn't know where it will actually go—he hopes the funds will help maintain the city's infrastructure in the absence of coal. He's been prepared for its potential shutdown since last year's announcement that two of the plant's units will be gone.
The issue has already been on his mind since last year’s announcement of a shutdown date for the first half of the plant. The loss of those two units alone will be a huge economic for the small town, hundreds of whom are employed through coal, Williams says.
Part of the frustration for Williams is the disconnect between Bellevue-based PSE and Colstrip. PSE has never met with the Colstrip community or asked them about their needs, he says.
Colstrip won’t be the first town learning to navigate a life after coal if its plant ends up shutting down. Other once coal-dependent towns have been forced to forge new futures for themselves, and Howell says he’d like to see the $10 million put toward a cleaner future for the Montana community.
Moving forward, Sierra Club spokesperson Caleb Heeringa says the group seeks “a more firm commitment from PSE that they won’t be spending any more money" on the power plant's remaining two units. If the Colstrip coal plant shuts down, Heeringa and Howell say it could lead to the end of coal usage in the Pacific Northwest, continuing its slow process of being phased out as an energy source.
"[Coal]'s just way too expensive to run compared to what the alternatives are," he said. "It's going to have a ripple effect."