HELENA - NorthWestern Energy and the company wanting to buy the utility are spending time on the road, reassuring Montanans the proposed deal isn't too good to be true.
Babcock and Brown Infrastructure is promising to be a stable, long-term owner interested in only a modest return on the investment _ a stark contrast to the venture capitalists who own much of NorthWestern's stock now.
NorthWestern and BBI are engaged in what stands to be a nearly yearlong quest to persuade regulators, and Montanans, that new ownership will be better for the state.
Mike Hanson, NorthWestern's president and chief executive, said the big companies that own much of NorthWestern's stock are simply interested in short-term gains. Such ownership makes long-term investments difficult, he said.
NorthWestern wants to explore the possibility of building its own electricity generation and adding more diverse types of power, such as wind, to its mix.
"All of those options will be available to us now," Hanson told The Associated Press last week.
That is if the proposed $2.2 billion deal passes muster with regulators and stockholders. Hanson said stockholders, who meet next month, have been giving the deal a generally warm reception.
Regulators, however, have promised to inspect the deal closely under a proposed schedule in which a final hearing would not held until March.
Hanson, and BBI Infrastructure Group head Michael Garland, promised "transparency" in the deal, and fought back criticism that the new, complex corporate structure will be tough for regulators to monitor.
BBI will be able to obtain much cheaper financing for projects, and has expertise in key areas like wind energy and long distance electricity transmission. The complex structure is aimed at avoiding double taxation for the Australian-based company, executives said.
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Montana energy customers have been through the wringer since utility deregulation in the late 1990s. The old Montana Power Co. is gone _ buried under the ashes of a failed fiber-optic company _ and its assets splintered largely between NorthWestern and PPL Montana. Since then, NorthWestern has been through a bankruptcy of its own.
Regulators are being cautious when approaching this new transaction.
Montana Public Service Commission Chairman Greg Jergeson said Montanans want and deserve a very close inspection of the offering. He said the PSC won't speed up its inquiry just to make the proposed deal easier for the companies.
Garland said BBI first became interested in NorthWestern though a staff member who knew Hanson, and knew the company was owned mostly by short-term investors. BBI determined NorthWestern was underrated and decided to buy it.
NorthWestern is expected to generate modest returns, along with little risk since its utility business generates regulated returns, Garland said.
A number of groups have intervened in the PSC case. The Montana Consumer Counsel said it is not yet clear whether the deal will help Montana.
Hanson, Garland and BBI executive Bill Coridano traveled around Montana last week, and continue this week, on a mission to tell their story to editorial boards and local groups. They say the reaction has been good.
"When we get a chance, people tend to be pretty positive," said Garland.
Most importantly, Garland said, people want to know about Montana's outlook for energy development and long-term energy policy.
"We're coming to find out what Montanans want, we're not coming here to tell Montanans what we want," he said.