Judge Rules Montana Gas-Fired Plant Can Move Forward, While Landmark Climate Case Begins

A judge has ruled that construction of natural gas-fired power plant in Montana can resume, two months after the same judge ordered the project halted due to environmental concerns.

The 175-MW Yellowstone County Generating Station, a $283 million facility sited near Laurel, has been dogged by legal actions after its air permit was challenged in a 2021 lawsuit from the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club. The plant, located along the Yellowstone River, would serve customers of South Dakota-based NorthWestern Energy, which operates in South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska.

This is a rendering of the Yellowstone County Generating Station near Laurel, Montana. The 175-MW natural gas-fired power plant is being built by NorthWestern Energy. Source: NorthWestern Energy / YouTube

NorthWestern also provides power for Yellowstone National Park.

Judge Michael Moses on June 8 cited a “changing legal landscape” in reversing his earlier order, which NorthWestern appealed to the Montana Supreme Court. Moses’ latest ruling comes after state lawmakers enacted legislation eliminating a requirement for officials to look at the climate impacts of such projects during the permitting process.

Moses earlier this year said he would retire from the bench on July 1, 2023.

Climate Case Begins

Montana officials’ support for the fossil fuel industry is being challenged in a landmark climate case that began June 12 in a courthouse in Helena, the state capitol. A group of 16 young plaintiffs is suing state government, charging that continued use of fossil fuels is in violation of a state constitutional mandate to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

The plaintiffs, ranging in age from 5 years to 22 years, say their future is threatened by climate change. The trial, expected to last two weeks, began with opening statements Monday. Should a judge determine that state support for the fossil fuel industry is unconstitutional, it could provide a precedent for similar actions in other states, according to legal experts.

Lawyers representing Montana have tried to block the case from proceeding to trial. The lawyers in a recent motion said a court proceeding would be a “show” trial that is a “gross injustice.”

Our Children’s Trust, an environmental group that helped bring the Montana lawsuit, said many of the plaintiffs plan to testify during the trial. The group has taken legal action in every state on climate issues, with several of its lawsuits pending. The group recently won a preliminary victory in a case in Oregon, when a judge on June 1 ruled that an action taken there and aimed at the federal government could proceed to trial.

Judge Cites Increased Costs

Moses in his June 8 ruling said restoring the air permit for the Yellowstone plant could help NorthWestern customers avoid higher energy bills, since delaying construction likely would increase the cost of the project. There are still legal challenges to the plant’s construction, including one by people opposed to building the plant near Laurel. Opponents of the plant have cited pollution and other concerns, such as the impact of the plant’s lights on nearby residents.

NorthWestern has said it expects to bring the facility online at some point in 2024. Construction began after the initial issuance of the air permit in September 2021.

The plant will feature 18 9.7-MW reciprocating internal combustion engines (RICE). The RICE units are Caterpillar’s G20CM34 generator. Burns & McDonnell serves as the engineering, procurement, and construction lead on the project.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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