By Walker Orenstein Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) – Washington state’s largest utility would be able to create a fund to pay for the eventual shutdown of two coal-powered electricity plants in Montana under a bill approved March 4 by the Legislature.

Senate Bill 6248 sailed through the House on a 92-5 vote after being easily passed by the Senate in February. It now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, where it can be signed into law.

The bill would let Puget Sound Energy put money aside to cover future decommissioning and remediation costs of the power plants in Colstrip, Mont., if they’re closed after 2023. The Colstrip Power Plant has four units, and the utility owns half of the older Colstrip Units 1 and 2.

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said the Legislature should start putting money away now for the eventual shutdown. Morris sponsored the House version of the measure.

“This money should be protected from being swept by future utility commissions,” he said during debate on the floor.

Colstrip is a company town, with a population of 2,300. The plant employs hundreds of people, and four lawmakers from the state told a Washington Senate committee recently that even a partial shutdown would create huge economic consequences for the city and industrial users in Montana that depend on the plant’s cheap power.

The bill initially called for closing Units 1 and 2, but was amended.

The four units emit 13.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually, according to the EPA, making it the fifteenth biggest producer of greenhouse gases in the country. Units 1 and 2 are the biggest polluters.

It’s likely the plant won’t be shut down for another generation, said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, adding that passing the bill was important because “those of us who have benefited from that low cost power” can “accept responsibility for our consumption.”

Rep. Bruce Chandler, R- Granger, joined three other Republicans and one Democrat in voting against the bill. He said closing the two plants might not go according to the plan passed by the Legislature.

“It could end up being far more expensive and take quite a bit longer than what the Legislature is expecting,” he said in an interview.

Puget Sound Energy has said shutting down the plants and cleaning them up would cost between $130 million and $200 million. Six companies own the Colstrip plant, but none of them are headquartered in Montana.

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