By Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2020

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Utility regulators have agreed to shield details of a coal supply contract for the Colstrip Power Plant in southeastern Montana for now.

The Montana Public Service Commission voted Tuesday in favor of a request from NorthWestern Energy, which argued the agreement contains trade secrets that should not be made public.

NorthWestern announced in early December that it had entered into a six-year coal supply agreement with Westmoreland Rosebud Mining for the Colstrip Power Plant. The contract also was entered into by the five other owners of Colstrip’s Units 3 and 4, NorthWestern officials said.

Advocates for making the agreement public argue that fuel costs will be a factor in electricity pricing if regulators approve NorthWestern’s proposal to buy another 25% share of Unit 4 at the coal-fired power plant.

John Hines, NorthWestern’s vice president for supply and governmental affairs, has said those who are part of the proposed purchase, such as the Montana Consumer Counsel, will be able to see the contract.

Commissioners said they would look at the contract to see if there were any details that could be fully released, Montana Public Radio reported.

Commissioners also voted to conceal the report detailing the causes of a 77-day malfunction of Colstrip’s Units 3 and 4 in 2018 as NorthWestern Energy tries to get ratepayers to absorb the estimated $7 million cost of having to buy power on the open market, The Billings Gazette reported.

The report, however, is already public in Washington state, where other Colstrip owners are trying to recover their costs for the June 2018 outage. The report says a combination of factors, from boiler combustion conditions to the type of filters being used, led to elevated particulate matter emissions.

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