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Monica Tranel, attorney and PSC candidate

MONICA TRANEL

In an eyebrow-raising clandestine move the Montana Public Service Commission recently approved a $6.5 million rate increase for Northwestern Energy and then failed to mention the price hike in the press release sent out following the decision.

PSC chairman Brad Johnson admitted it was wrong not to mention the increase and that if he had it to do over again, he would have “put another sentence in there talking about the $6.5 million.” Although Commissioner Roger Koopman blasted Johnson for the omission, the process, and Johnson’s lack of knowledge about the PSC, Koopman never explained that he too voted in favor of the increase and made the motion to approve it.

This all-Republican commission has, once again, done the bidding of NWE at the expense of its residential ratepayers who will be paying NWE shareholders (out-of-state corporations like Blackrock Fund) a 10% profit on Colstrip — even when the plant isn’t running. NWE recently asked the commission to recover almost $7 million it paid to buy power while Colstrip 4 was off line for violation of air quality emissions standards. While Republican commissioners rant about partisan behavior, we, the ratepayers, are being forced to send our money to New York hedge funds and at the same time buy power on the open market because a Colstrip plant can’t meet air quality standards.

The commission-approved stipulation that increases our rates was a “black box,” meaning that the PSC simply accepted important components of the rates we pay for our electricity. While making a lot of noise about process, commissioners have not explained to us, the captive ratepayers, why this is a good deal for Montanans. The PSC can require that NWE prove its case for an increase – but it didn’t. The commission simply approved NWE’s request without discussion and without asking why, on the same day NWE filed its stipulation with the commission, it told its shareholders that it could cut costs.

The last time a Democrat was elected to the PSC was in 2008. Since then, rates for NWE residential customers are the highest in the state and some of the highest in the region. In a remarkable jujitsu, NWE spokesperson Crystal Lail said that Montanan’s bills are below the national average – which completely ignores the fact that our rates should be set only on the cost of providing electricity to us here in Montana. Someone in Hawaii is not going to pay double the actual cost of a pineapple and feel good about it because it is still “below the national average.”

Even though Colstrip Units 1 and 2 are about to be shuttered permanently, and Units 3 and 4 are unreliable, dirty, and expensive, NWE doggedly pursues their purchase. During the 2019 legislative session NWE proposed legislation to purchase Colstrip for $1. The so-called Blank Check bill would’ve put antiquated Colstrip into rates and stripped the PSC of its oversight on what those rates would be. NWE ratepayers would have been on the line to pay for the clean-up costs for the Colstrip coal ash ponds – which are contaminating the groundwater – at a cost of between $400 and $700 million. A bipartisan coalition of legislators finally killed the bill, but guess what? The PSC voted 3-1 to support it, directly ignoring its own staff’s warnings about the consequences to ratepayers, and abdicating their responsibility as regulators to determine rates that NWE customers pay. District 4 Commissioner Bob Lake supported the legislation.

We can hold the commission accountable for its refusal to abide by its statutory mandate to regulate the monopoly for-profit corporation whose incentive is to make money off of us, the ratepayers. NWE may wish to invest in fossil fuels that are literally going the way of the dinosaurs that begot them, but Montana does not have to allow that to happen. We can elect commissioners who will follow the law, and listen to science and reason.

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Attorney Monica Tranel, of Missoula, has represented renewable power clients in front of the Montana PSC and previousl worked as a staff attorney for the PSC and the Montana Consumer Counsel. She is a Democratic candidate for the PSC District 4 seat in Western Montana.

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