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US SEC staff declines NorthWestern's plea to weigh in on coal-related resolution

Staff of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission declined to weigh in on whether NorthWestern Corp. can block an environmental resolution from going to a vote at its 2020 annual meeting, leaving the utility and shareholder to duke the matter out in court or reach a deal.

In a Jan. 9 letter posted on the SEC's website, staff noted that litigation is pending regarding the resolution.

"Because the matter is pending adjudication by a court of competent jurisdiction, in accordance with the staff's longstanding policy, we decline to state a view on the company's intention to exclude the proposal from its proxy materials relating to the upcoming annual meeting of security holders," said the letter signed by SEC acting Deputy Chief Counsel M. Hughes Bates.

Shareholder and lawyer Thomas Tosdal proposed a resolution to have NorthWestern "cease coal-fired generation of electricity from the Colstrip plant" in Montana and replace that capacity with renewables and energy storage by the end of 2025. NorthWestern had asked for the SEC's blessing to exclude the resolution from its annual shareholder meeting proxy materials. But Tosdal filed a complaint shortly thereafter with the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana (Tosdal v. NorthWestern 9:19-cv-00205-DLC) that sought to force the utility to include the materials in its proxy materials. Including the resolution in the materials is an indication that the matter could be brought up for a vote at the meeting.

NorthWestern holds a 30% stake in unit 4 of the Colstrip plant and recently proposed to acquire Puget Sound Energy Inc.'s 25% stake in the unit to help cover a generation supply shortage in Montana.

Following a conference call with the parties to the court case, Chief District Judge Dana Christensen on Jan. 8 ordered NorthWestern and Tosdal to file their cross-motions for summary judgment on or before Jan. 17 and indicated the court will hold a hearing on those motions Feb. 20.