By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
KALISPELL – How does Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester rebut charges he supported environmental regulations that will eventually shutter a coal power plant near Billings?
He launches a blistering attack toward the plant operator, of course.
As the third U.S. Senate debate of this election cycle unfolded here in Kalispell on Sunday night, Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, Montana’s lone congressman since 2001, repeatedly attacked first-term incumbent Tester for supporting Environmental Protection Agency regulations that will lead to the closure of the Corette power plant in 2015.
Tester, on his heels in defense mode, struck back, noting that plant operator Pennsylvania Power and Light earned nearly $1.5 billion in 2011 and can afford the upgrades the EPA requires.
“They would have had to pay a small percentage of that to keep Corette open,” Tester explained.
“But no. PPL’s more interested in outsourcing your jobs — similar policy to what the congressman’s advocated in his tenure in Congress. Outsource those jobs, make those investments there and to hell with Montana.”
Shorter Tester: PPL didn’t kneel at the government’s sacred environmental altar, so screw them.
While the Democrat’s likely correct in asserting PPL could afford the upgrades needed to continue operations at the Billings plant, it’s not pocket change. According to the company’s own estimates, adding a bag house, essentially a large-scare filter to keep dust out of the air, would cost $38 million.
The move might make sense if energy prices were higher, but company representatives say there’s an oversupply of electricity on the market, driving down prices. They also blame natural gas and federally subsidized wind-energy projects for reduced rates.
With the hefty price tag firmly attached, PPL decided the right move for business would be to mothball the plant, or keep it in reserve for later if regulatory conditions or rates change.
Rehberg was unrelenting in his attacks.
“He voted with the EPA,” Rehberg accused. “He voted with the (President Barack) Obama administration. What is going to happen — 35 lost jobs, $10 million out of the Billings and Yellowstone County economy?
“You don’t do things like vote with the EPA to shut down a plant.”
Government revenues will also likely drop as a result of the closure. PPL paid $1.7 million in property taxes to Yellowstone County last year.
Tester, again on defense, took an alternative tack, suggesting PPL’s announcement might be a political maneuver.
“And then … a few weeks ago … they decided to announce a plant closing three years from now,” Tester said, pausing momentarily to drive home a point.
A leading environmental group, too, feels the announcement is nothing more than political hijinks.
“If Pennsylvania Power and Light were really committed to jobs, it would bring the 44-year-old Corette plant up to standards and keep it open. This is just a political stunt to pit Montanans against each other,” Ed Gulick, a past chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, told the Billings Gazette last month.
The NPRC is a staunch opponent of Montana coal production and Steve Charter, a member of the group’s oversight board, appeared in a pro-Tester television commercial earlier this year.
Of course, Tester didn’t mention the $6,000 he’s taken from PPL’s political group during this election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, an online campaign finance tracking tool. Rehberg has received $10,000 from the political spending group.
The PPL attack dovetails nicely with the GOP candidates’ efforts to tie state Democrats to the Obama administration by any means necessary. Rehberg’s campaign and several conservative spending groups have hammered Tester on the Corette closure in television and radio ads and mailings.
The Corette closure has trickled to other races, as well. GOP congressional candidate Steve Daines points to the EPA as an evil bogeyman that’s overreaching its regulatory duties. In a debate last week, Daines proposed putting the department’s budget on the chopping block.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill bashed Democratic opponent Steve Bullock, now the state attorney general, for not joining 24 others states in challenging the EPA rules.
Rehberg and Tester debate one more time before voters head to the polls Nov. 6. The two will face off at the Riverside Country Club in Bozeman on Saturday night.
Several national pundits place this contest on the national radar as one that could flip Senate control to Republicans.
Here’s video of the EPA exchange during Sunday night’s debate:
Contact: Dustin@Watchdog.org, or @DustinHurst via Twitter.