Lessons from closing N.Y. power plant may help in Colstrip – Billings Gazette, Nov. 20, 2016

By Mike Ferguson

Peter De Jesus knows firsthand the financial and employment impact that closing a coal-fired power plant can have on a community, and he shared his experiences with a crowd of about 175 people in Billings Saturday.

De Jesus, senior organizer and communications director for the Western New York Area Labor Federation, told the 45th annual meeting of the Northern Plains Resource Council that the coalition he helped form in Tonawanda, N.Y., around the closing of the Huntley Generating Station could be something that Colstrip-area residents, businesses and educators consider as the Colstrip Power Plant decommissions units 1 and 2 in the coming years.

Colstrip-area residents and officials will have time, just like their counterparts in Tonawanda did. The Huntley Generating Plant shut down in 2015, a year after a study showed it was losing money and would not be profitable in the future.

“We had two options — sit back and wait, or be proactive and engage those people who would be affected in conversation,” he said. “Our goal was not only to survive, but to thrive. To me this is commonsense theory.”

The coalition had a number of goals, and some of them are ongoing. Among them are maintaining school funding, protecting workers and helping them to find good-paying jobs, reconnecting the city to its riverfront, creating and sustaining a new tax base, protecting rate-payers and improving the environment and residents’ health.

Schools alone stood to lose $3 million annually, but the coalition helped pass a bill in the New York State Legislature that helped the schools replenish $2.2 million of the money they lost. The sponsor of the bill, De Jesus noted, was a state assemblyman “who did not agree with what we were doing early on. He thought the plant would never close, but at the end of the day he was instrumental in securing this fund.”

“You’ve got to continue to dialogue with elected officials,” De Jesus said. “Like them or not, they are the ones who can give you what you need.”

A year after the New York plant closure, the coalition is running a campaign to clean up and redevelop the site and “analyzing how people can make money in Tonawanda,” he said. “In western New York we are seeing more and more renewables being developed.”

Before De Jesus’ talk, Dan Cohn, regional organizer for the Western Organization of Research Councils, traced the recent history of coal company bankruptcies in the region and around the country.

Hubris among coal executives, he said, is as much to blame for the industry’s decline as competition from natural gas and renewable sources of energy.