Public praises city for coal about-face

MISSOULA, MONTANA - Citizens and conservation advocates across Montana commended Missoula leaders for their decision to back out of a deal with Electric City Power, a Great Falls nonprofit with plans to build a coal-fired plant.

“I was very pleased to see Missoula local government show such leadership so quickly on such an important issue,” said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

The Missoula City Council folded to public pressure and reversed its support for a plan to buy electricity from Great Falls. Supporting Mayor John Engen's request to change course, several council members agreed the public had raised too many questions that couldn't be answered before an Oct. 1 deadline imposed by a new law.

Citing great financial risk and definite environmental harm, many community members and legislators blasted Missoula council members for authorizing the mayor to sign an agreement with a company backing coal. The MEIC's Hedges was among the advocates who asked the city to back out of the deal, seen across the state by environmental advocates as the “un-greening” of Missoula.

Hedges and other advocates said they cast no blame on city officials, who didn't have all the information they needed to make a good decision early on. They also commended city officials for showing a willingness to do an about-face.

“I'm just really pleased that when they were presented with an abundance of information, they were willing to look at it and reconsider what they had done. I think that really shows moral courage,” Hedges said.

Some council members said they weren't convinced they should abandon coal, though they agreed the deal with Electric City Power offered too many unknowns. Citizens, though, said they were pleased to see Missoula head in a direction that wouldn't increase the valley's carbon footprint and contribute to global warming.

“We have so many untapped opportunities in Montana to produce electricity from renewable sources, like wind and solar, and with good leadership from D.C. and Helena, that's exactly what we should be doing,” wrote a policy advocate and concerned citizen, Derek Goldman, in an e-mail.

Goldman was one of the people who told council members a week ago to think twice before signing the contract. He and others did not want to see the Garden City behind a coal-fired power plant.

City officials initially leapt at the offer because it looked to considerably lower Missoula's power bill, which has jumped since deregulation. Opponents argued the deal was fraught with financial risk, but the contract was expected to save $70,000 a year in electricity charges - at least in the short term.

After public outcry, Engen asked council members to change direction. He maintains the city's goals are valid, however, and has asked people who opposed this deal to help him find ways to buy green and less expensive power.

Matt Leow, executive director for the Montana Public Interest Research Group, or MontPIRG, said conservation would go a long way toward cutting down the cost of the power bill.

“Efficiency and conservation can yield tremendous savings with minimal investments,” said Leow, who was writing a letter thanking the mayor and council members for their decision.

Hedges said it's the city's role to provide a forum to explore the issue, which has engaged people across Montana.

Energy is a perennial topic during state legislative sessions, and a new law requires customers the size of Missoula to choose their electricity supplier by Oct. 1 - and generally stick with that provider.

With the impending deadline, Great Falls representatives have been asking groups to sign up with Electricity City Power. The nonprofit will be part owner of the power plant being built outside the city and expected to be operational by 2012.

Helena earlier turned down the offer, and Bozeman declined to even hear Great Falls' presentation. Missoula signed on in early August and then reversed direction.

Great Falls city manager John Lawton said Missoula isn't a large enough electricity consumer to make a big dent in the company's portfolio. The offer was a courtesy on the part of Great Falls, but cities like Missoula were never the company's main targets.

“It would be a nice load to have, but it is not a large load in terms of our overall customer base,” Lawton said.

A series of small refusals such as Missoula's could make a difference in the long run, though, Hedges said. If Electric City Power doesn't sell enough megawatts, financing the coal-fired plant will be more difficult, she said.

“It's hard to get other investors and other customers. They need that and their clock is ticking,” she said.

Though the pressing matter elicited a public outcry, several council members said many letters they received had an offensive tone. They asked public interest groups to remain respectful in their correspondence in the future or even pick up the telephone.

“It really leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” Ward 1 Councilwoman Heidi Kendall said of some of the letters she received.

Ward 5 Councilman Jack Reidy voiced an audible abstention from the vote, saying he didn't know enough to make an educated decision.



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