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How Montana Public Service Commission Election Results Could Affect Energy In The State

Photo of Gallatin County ballot envelopes
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Gallatin County ballot envelope

Three of five seats are up for grabs on the body that regulates electric utilities in Montana. Open races will take place for seats representing the western and southwestern regions, while an incumbent is running for the southeast Montana seat.

Yellowstone Public Radio New’s Kayla Desroches spoke with politics and agriculture reporter Tom Lutey from the Billings Gazette about what the outcome of the November election could mean for the Public Service Commission and the state’s energy portfolio.

Kayla Desroches: Right now, all of the commissioners are Republican. The last time a Democrat served as commissioner was 2012. How have the political leanings of commissioners affected utilities and energy policy in the state?

Tom Lutey: What we've heard from consumers, who have packed listening sessions to address commissioners, is that they don't think that they're being paid the same deference as utilities and they want to be taken seriously, and that's not a partisan issue.

The only incumbent commissioner on the ballot this year is Tony O'Donnell, who just captured 36 percent of the vote in a three-way primary but 64 percent of the Republican voters chose someone else.

Desroches: Montana's largest utility, NorthWestern Energy, is seeking the PSC’s approval to buy an additional share in the Colstrip coal fired power plant even as Colstrip power plant owners from other states are pulling out. What have candidates said about this proposal and their goals for the state's energy generation portfolio?

Lutey: The commissioners elected November 3 will have three of the five votes concerning pre-approval of Northwestern's proposed purchase of 12.5 percent of Colstrip Unit 4, which they have 30 percent ownership in now.

The further we get away from coal country, the less affirmative candidates are about obligating customers to save the power plant. O'Donnell has already said he looks forward to approving the deal. He said that last spring. The other Republicans don't go that far. Democrats Tom Woods and Monica Tranel say they're concerned about saddling customers with years of debt and risk.

Editor’s note Oct. 29: Owners of the Colstrip coal fired power plant called off the sale of an added share of Colstrip Unit 4 to NorthWestern Energy on Thursday Oct. 29 shortly after this report aired.

Desroches: Democrat Monica Tranel is running for the District 4 seat in western Montana against Republican Jennifer Fielder. Tranel says she wants to facilitate Montana’s transition to renewable energy.

“We have been using renewable energy for over a hundred years in Montana,” she said. “We understand how this works. We know how to do it. So, it’s bringing really good people together to get the job done," Tranel said in an interview.

What would it mean for the PSC to have one or more Democrats elected?

Lutey: Based on what those Democratic candidates are saying, you assume they'd be giving better consideration to renewables and also be less comfortable assigning a high level of risk in debt to consumers no matter what the power source is.

Desroches: The Montana Supreme Court this year ruled in two cases that the PSC did not follow state and federal law in setting rates that harmed solar projects. What do candidates say about solar generation and other forms of renewable energy?

Lutey: It's about following the law and knowing the law would be a plus for any candidate. There isn't that legal experience on the commission now. Three of these candidates have experience with energy policy in Montana.

[Democrat for District 3] Woods is a legislator. [Republican for District 3] Jim Brown has some experience with cases before the Public Service Commission, and {Democrat for District 4] Tranel touches all the bases. She's worked for the commission. She's worked for the Consumer Council. She's worked for renewable developers representing them before the PSC and she's done some work for NorthWestern.

Desroches: The PSC has been in the news this year for conflict between commissioners. Someone with access to a commissioner’s emails leaked those emails and a commissioner made allegations about one of his colleagues on a political podcast.

Lawyer James Brown, a Republican candidate running against Democrat Tom Woods in southwest Montana’s District 3, says infighting is a poor use of commissioner time.

“That means that those efforts are taking away from the work that these commissioners should be doing," Brown said in an interview.

Do you expect the workplace dynamic to continue in the coming years with the next round of commissioners?

Lutey: That really depends on the makeup of the commission. Brad Johnson and Randy Pinocci will remain on the commission through 2022. Tony O'Donnell's on the ballot now. All three of those commissioners have had a hand in the dysfunction of the office.

Roger Koopman and Bob Lake are term-limited out. Adding two commissioners to that mix might not change much. Adding three would be significant but it would also be unexpected.

Desroches: Is there anything we didn’t talk about that is important for listeners to know?

Lutey: I think what people need to understand is that this race, which is pretty far down ballot, probably matters to people more than they realize on the consumer level given the long-lasting impact of the decisions that the Public Service Commission makes. The way that debt is assigned to customers long-term can affect people for 30, 40 years.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.