- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 11, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana Gov. Steve Bullock convened a meeting at the state Capitol Wednesday with three Colstrip executives, as the debate over the coal-fired power plant plays out in his re-election campaign.

Competing forces - union jobs and clean energy - have turned Colstrip into a potentially potent issue in the governor’s race. His meeting with the executives was a clear attempt to assert his leadership on the matter. But in the end, the future of the plant remained just as uncertain.

Bob Rowe, the chief executive of NorthWestern Energy, said his company is in no position to buy parts of the plant, as Bullock suggested the company consider.

Bullock is putting together a group to look into finding a buyer for the plant’s older units to stave off closure and the loss of union jobs.

Meanwhile, Talen CEO Paul Farr said his company was losing millions of dollars operating the plant. “We are under time and cross pressures,” he said. “We’re trying to see if there is a constructive path forward to try to have a resolution because the current situation can’t go on a lot longer.”

Bullock said he invited the CEOs to discuss ownership of the plant and how the state should address the difficult issues surrounding Colstrip.

“We all recognize that this is an incredibly complex issue,” said Kimberly Harris, Puget Sound Energy’s CEO.

As the company considers whether it should decommission the plant’s two older units, the challenge lies in identifying “what’s the secure and safe transition for these units,” she said. “I think we need to look at the long term.”

Colstrip is expected to be a key point of attack by Republican Greg Gianforte as he attempts to evict Bullock from the governor’s mansion.

“Yet another meeting. … We need action,” said Gianforte spokesman Aaron Flint. “He’s failing to stand up for Colstrip and high-wage Montana jobs.”

If the Colstrip plant were to close, it could mean a loss of more than 7,100 jobs and siphon more $500 million in Montana wages, according to a study by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

The governor’s office said Bullock was committed to “a responsible energy future that is balanced, keeps the jobs we have while creating new ones, protects Montana’s outdoors, and passes on a Montana that is the envy of the nation for quality of life and economic stability.”

But Colstrip could be a thorny issue for the governor, said Alex Street, a political science professor at Carroll College.

Street said the governor’s group allows him “to stall and wait until after the elections to deal with this issue.”

Bullock’s immediate concern, Street said, is keeping intact his voter base.

“He’s got two constituencies that he would like to play to, but are in conflict - the environmentalists on one side, and unions and working families on the other side,” Street said. “For a Democrat in this kind of situation, not just this particular governor, there’s going to be an awkward compromise.”

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