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GOP legislators try to retract Montana consumer advocate's Colstrip concerns
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GOP legislators try to retract Montana consumer advocate's Colstrip concerns

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Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, (copy)

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, speaks on the House floor of the state Capitol in March.

Key Republican lawmakers are asking Montana’s consumer advocate to retract concerns about NorthWestern Energy’s proposal to buy a larger share of Colstrip Power Plant.

The move by Republicans on the Legislative Consumer Committee comes as NorthWestern asks state regulators to reconsider a March ruling that found deficient the utility’s application to buy more of Colstrip, based partly on concerns raised by the Montana Consumer Counsel.

It’s the Montana Consumer Counsel, created by the state constitution, that is supposed to defend the interests of the public in matters concerning monopoly utilities. The state constitution also gives the Consumer Counsel power to investigate utility matters and, if necessary, sue on consumers’ behalf.

Last month, Montana Consumer Counsel member Bob Nelson, an attorney, argued that NorthWestern had failed to prove buying more of Colstrip was in the public interest. It’s Montana customers who moving forward will pay for the maintenance and operations costs, as well as repairs for the power plant share NorthWestern wants to buy. Nelson asked that the utility be required to provide more details about those customer risks, including details about those costs. Montana’s utility regulator, the Public Service Commission, concurred.

Nelson’s arguments on behalf of consumers angered Republicans on the Legislative Consumer Committee. State law doesn’t allow the committee to meddle in Nelson’s work. The law does direct the committee to set Montana Consumer Counsel salaries and do the hiring and firing, which is what makes the request for a retraction concerning.

In a letter issued April 13, Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, and Missoula Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins objected to Nelson filing objections to NorthWestern Energy’s Colstrip application before the Consumer Committee could evaluate Nelson’s work. Again, there’s no requirement members of the committee preapprove the Montana Consumer Counsel’s work. Committee members are warned at their first meeting against doing so.

“First, we believe it’s both our constitutional and fiduciary duty, as both elected leaders and paid staff alike, to advocate for whatever is the best deal overall for Montana’s electric consumers,” the two Republicans wrote.

In fact, the law specifies that it’s the Montana Consumer Counsel’s role to represent consumers of monopoly utilities and makes no mention of the Consumer Committee.

Welborn then goes on to identify himself as “vice chairman of the Montana Consumer Counsel,” a position that does not exist. He also assumes ownership of Nelson’s work in a way that suggests the attorney needed the approval of the Republicans and didn’t have it.

Specifically, Nelson had asked that NorthWestern answer questions about power plant operator Talen Energy, which four years ago announced it was losing millions operating the power plant and wanted out, then later chose to remain. The Consumer Counsel wanted details about why the Colstrip owner selling its 25% stake in Unit 4, Puget Sound Energy, wanted out.

There had been no mention of Puget's assessment of Unit 4 in NorthWestern's application. However, Puget had told Washington regulators "the benefit of the coal-fired generation has increasingly been eroded over the past decade. Coal-fired generating units face increasing compliance costs in light of declining electricity market prices due to increased competition from low-cost natural gas generation and increasing penetration of renewable resources. At the same time, the costs of maintaining and operating Colstrip Unit 4 continue to escalate.”

The Consumer Counsel went on to raise issues about $20 million in needed repairs to the superheated section of the Unit 4 boiler, which hadn’t been mentioned by NorthWestern in its preapproval application. The future cost of the coal to fuel the unit had also not been disclosed.

That "significant uncertainty" about who would run Colstrip Power Plant was a risk NorthWestern should answer for, Nelson argued. There had also been a proposal to use “refined coal” at the power plant in order to take advantage of a federal tax credit, which hadn’t been mentioned in NorthWestern’s filing. Nelson wanted the tax credit revealed so that it could be determined whether the benefit should belong to consumers, who normally pay the utility's taxes.

“We feel that these issues being discussed in any capacity by MCC are purely speculation, and should be deemed inappropriate,” the Republicans wrote about the Talen details.

Hopkins did not respond to an interview request placed Monday on his personal phone. Welborn acknowledged that he isn’t vice chairman of the Montana Consumer Counsel, but rather vice chairman of the Legislative Consumer Committee.

“Our job is to advocate for the consumer, and if the docket doesn’t move forward. It just seems that there’s always these roadblocks that are thrown in the way whenever there’s something that moves forward that has to do anything with coal steam generation,” Welborn said. “I feel like the docket needs to move forward, let the Public Service Commission do their job, and if it’s a good deal for Montana consumers they’ll figure it out, or if it's not, they’ll figure it out.”

It’s actually the Montana Consumer Counsel who makes the case for what’s in consumer’s best interests. What the Consumer Counsel presents is a significant part of the "figuring out" process for the PSC.

Welborn said the letter was written in haste. April 13 was the day before Montana’s Public Service Commission was supposed to reconsider its earlier requirement that NorthWestern provide more information about its Colstrip plans.

That April 14 meeting was delayed after an attempt to stream the meeting on Zoom backfired. As the public attempted to comment on NorthWestern’s plans, the app was bombed with profanities and pornographic images. The Public Service Commission pulled the plug on the discussion. Tuesday, the commission reversed itself, ruling that NorthWestern's application was adequate without the information sought by the Montana Consumer Counsel.

The Legislative Consumer Committee Chairwoman, Sue Malek, of Missoula, responded to the letter by Welborn and Hopkins reminding the men of what a former Republican chairman of the committee Terry Murphy, had written to the newcomers last July:

“The Counsel does not work for us; the Counsel is a constitutional office set up to represent basically the financial interests of consumers in rate-setting cases more than anything else. As to the question of this Committee directing the activities of the Consumer Counsel, what I was told when I came on was no, we do not do that, that is not our job and it wouldn’t be proper for us to do that. The way I have always looked at it — the power we have over the Counsel, as members of the Legislature, is that if we really get mad at him we can go to the next session and cut his budget all to pieces by recommending to the Budget Committee that they do not deserve much money, but as far as coming to a Committee meeting and assigning them certain duties we simply, as I was given to understand, do not have that authority and probably shouldn’t have.”

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