Key coverage in the race for Public Service Commission
Race profile: Six candidates vie for three Public Service Commission seats
On the issues
How would you assess the performance of the current Public Service Commission?
The PSC has abandoned Montanans in favor of the monopolies it regulates. 10 years of an all-GOP PSC has brought us childish political infighting, failure to show up for work, falling asleep at hearings, the stifling of Montana’s renewable energy industry, and an increase to our electric bills of more than 20%. The current spying and partisanship has distracted from the real work of the PSC, taken a toll on staff, and is demoralizing for everyone. The hyper-partisanship has resulted in a direct economic blow to Montana’s schools, roads and emergency responders. Montanans shouldn’t feel the impacts of a dysfunctional PSC on their monthly bills. We need commissioners who recognize the urgency of creating a modernized, affordable, reliable, and renewable energy system. I’m running for commissioner to make Montana an energy leader in today’s economy. We can generate millions of dollars of new investment and good-paying jobs in our communities and guide Montana towards a renewable energy future.
Utility regulation is highly technical work that involves complex legal and engineering issues. What experience do you have that makes you confident you’ll be able to effectively parse detailed briefing materials and fairly evaluate competing arguments from business representatives and environmental advocates?
I bring two decades of legal experience working directly with PSC issues, including as a staff attorney at the PSC and the Montana Consumer Counsel. As a staff attorney I worked on legislation, rulemaking, and served on regional and national committees, like the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions (NARUC). In private practice, I’ve represented renewable energy clients before the PSC, handling cases that I’ve both defended and appealed all the way to the Montana Supreme Court. Cases I’ve handled include Qwest v. The Montana PSC, where on behalf of the PSC I defended the PSC’s right to investigate monopoly utilities; I represent WINData in the pending appeal before the Montana Supreme Court challenging the PSC’s pricing of renewable energy projects; as an attorney at MCC I successfully prevailed on two cases where NWE claimed it was entitled to replacement power costs when Colstrip and Dave Gates Generating were offline, keeping $10 million in Montana rather than going to NWE.
In addition to energy companies, the PSC regulates telephone companies, garbage haulers and passenger motor carriers. There has been some discussion in recent years about adding hospital oversight to the commission’s responsibilities as well. Do you think the PSC has appropriate regulatory scope?
The commission’s role, as set out in the statutes below, is to oversee natural monopolies that deliver specifically delineated services defined by statute. Based on current Montana law, I do not see any authority for the PSC to oversee hospitals.
69-3-301. Schedule of rates, tolls, and charges. (1) Every public utility shall file with the commission...
69-3-101. Meaning of term "public utility". (1) The term "public utility", within the meaning of this chapter, includes … for the production, delivery, or furnishing … (a) heat; (b) street-railway service; (c) light; (d) power in any form or by any agency; (e) except as provided in chapter 7, water for business, manufacturing, household use, or sewerage service, whether within the limits of municipalities or towns or elsewhere; (f) regulated telecommunications service...
Do you think the current Public Service Commission has placed appropriate weight on climate change considerations?
Absolutely not. The PSC is not following fact, science or law when making decisions. The Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) was passed in 1978 and adopted by the Montana Legislature (Montana’s Mini-PURPA), and obligates monopoly utilities like Northwestern to buy renewable energy; the PSC sets the price when the parties don’t agree. In a hearing for a new wind farm, the PSC refused to follow law, and set a price so low and contract terms so unfavorable that one commissioner publicly admitted it would kill the project. I’ve argued that case on behalf of the wind farm to the Montana Supreme Court. I’ve worked with ranchers and renewable energy developers to get wind, solar, and hydro projects built across Montana. I’m the only candidate endorsed by Montana Conservation Voters and climate change scholar and Nobel laureate Dr. Steve Running. I am committed to guiding Montana towards a renewable, reliable, and affordable energy future.
Do you think the current Public Service Commission has placed appropriate weight on preserving the economic benefits of coal generating plants in Colstrip and Sidney?
We must ask what the economic benefits are that are being preserved. We must include the impact that industry has on society at large, as well as the life cycle costs of any plant. It’s unacceptable that the PSC has defied recommendations from the Montana Consumer Counsel and PSC staff and announced it would consider approving Northwestern’s purchase of more of Colstrip for $.50, even though NWE hasn’t provided necessary information to assess the risks and costs to customers. What NWE is asking the PSC to do by making the $.50 purchase is to shift all the risk of cleaning up Colstrip to us. In January 2013, NWE valued Colstrip at a negative $340 million dollars – in its own words, “due to environmental concerns.” Seven years later two of Colstrip’s plants have shut down, and repair costs for the plant that is still open are estimated at $20 million. The PSC has become a rubber stamp for NWE, sticking Montanans with the bill. If elected, I’ll fight for fair rates for Montanans.
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