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Montana’s Public Power Movement

BUTTE, MONTANA

Now I am sure somewhere in America there is a decent corporation .Yet the chances of running across people in Montana.who believe such a thing are slim to none.

Some among us even point to the possibility of a long-ago curse on this land, leaving a wicked spirit or spirits to attract the most larcenous, dishonest, unscrupulous, ruthless, and predatory of American corporations and their representatives. As you must surely know, one or the other will end up in the Big Sky. And you can take it for granted that there mission will be doing their best to make things out here worse then they already are.

An example of that occurred last November when the Republican congress told us it was time for real reform of the 1872 mining law and they knew how to do it.Trust us they said.

So, in the middle of the night, certainly one good reason not to trust them, Richard Pombo, a California congressman snuck into a budget appropriations bill a public lands attachment that would have allowed mining companies, or just about anyone or anybody that called themselves a mining company, to grab almost any parcel of public land remaining in the West. If made law, America’s privatization racketeers could acquire public land for around $1,000 per acre, fence it off or put it up for sale for whatever they could get.

When the intent of the legislating leaked to the public, a nationwide uproar followed. And in Montana we found congressman and real estate developer Denny Rehberg standing with Pombo. Not only that, within hours, Republican Rehberg, who enjoys a 100 percent Christian Coalition approval rating year after year, was running around waving a letter from Pombo swearing the midnight hour legislation would not deny access to Montana’s public waters and lands.

But nobody believed the congressman and his sorry little stunt didn’t go over too well in the Big Sky. Another uproar followed and even our finger in the wind, fence sitting Senator, Max Baucus, started talking about a Rehberg backed assault on public lands in Montana.

Rehberg counterattacked, describing the opposition as hysterical. That said, he then asked a very bizarre question. “Are you really going to fish in the Berkeley Pit, that’s what we’re talking about?” As you can see, somehow Denny had gotten confused, mistaking Butte’s privately owned gaping hole for a public land.

Finally Montana governor Brian Schweitzer jumped in for the kill, likening the revised Rehberg-Pombo plan to a skunk. Said Schweitzer:”If a skunk comes into your house, you can throw it into the shower, and he’s still going to smell like skunk. You’re not going to get out the smell of this one with just a shower and a little soap.”

For now the Rehberg-Pombo “skunk scheme” has been shelved. But you can bet the pair are waiting for another dark night.

TROPHY RANCHING

A more immediate and deeper problem for Montana is another type of public land grab, one rooted in a radical growth in the disparity of American income. This imbalance has produced what it often referred to as a “ceo culture.” And this lifestyle, of both its practitioners and their families, has made Montana a major destination for their frivolous pursuits.

The new land barons, consumed by the drive for private and solitary pleasures that are so often the companion of excessive wealth, have brought to Montana a determination to do only what they want. It is a gimme gimme attitude to land ownership and has led to the erosion of public life and citizenship in the state.

This grabbing what were once our traditional public lands and streams is aimed squarely at the common and decent people of Montana, The trophy ranching, with its locked gates, “Gulag” and electric fencing combined with the illegal seizure of our public waters. fish and wildlife, has made some famous names elsewhere infamous in Montana.

Some of the more deserving of well earned notoriety in the Big Sky are the Ruby River’s James Cox Kennedy ( the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Cox Communications, Cox Enterprises Inc.,Cox Radio, James M. Cox, Jr. Foundation), the Flying D’s Ted Turner ( Turner Enterprises, Ted’s Montana Grill, Bo Turner, Turner Outfitters) and Hamilton’s Charles Schwab ( Charles Schwab Corporation, U.S. Trust Corporation, CyberTrader).

And we may have a new contender for Montana notoriety.

A square mile of fence has just been erected west of Anaconda. This new fence reaches a height of 66 inches and is fortified by 48 inches of heavy duty sheep mesh at the bottom. Which makes this a “killer fence” anywhere in the world.

Aside from a rhinoceros, hippopotamus or elephant, this fence is an escape proof enclosure for wildlife. Not even his Atlanta brethren, Turner and Kennedy. can match that so the new guy is one up there.

And the guy responsible, Kent Britain, is the chairman at Connecticut’s United Technologies, a filthy rich corporation if there was ever one. Britain is in charge of international operations and outsourcing at UT. And he is very good at it if you are not an American worker.

United Technologies has built large software development centers in Pune and Bangalore, India. With Mr. Britain leading the way, the company is in the process of shipping 80 percent of its software application development and support (American jobs) to these India locations. Since 1996 this corporation has closed 52 US plants and eliminated 46,000 American jobs, At the same time, UT executives have reaped a great harvest from the Bush tax cuts.

No surprise considering United Technologies (much larger then Haliburton) is at the heart of the American war machine.
In fact, wherever in the world a war is going on, UT is there selling something that speeds up the killing, wounding, blinding, and maiming as well as more efficiently destroying houses, hospitals and schools.

You see UT is the world leader in helicopter design, manufacturing and service which is the corporation’s real money maker. Here we will find the very profitable, expensive and quite deadly Comanche and Black Hawk helicopters which has already made this corporation one of the Iraq War’s big winners.

As for Montana, it seems like we are the big losers with the addition of Kent Britain to our population. I will quote from the January 20 edition of the Montana Standard. I will also add that I have personally seen this fence.

The fence is 51/2 feet high with 4 feet of “sheep wire,” topped with four electric wires and barbed wire. The fence, which is situated along a streamside corridor and in deer and moose winter range, creates a nearly impenetrable barrier to wildlife.

“It’s a significant barrier to wildlife moving up and down Warm Springs Creek, and crossing between the Pintler and Flint foothills,” says Ray Vinkey, area wildlife biologist from Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“Any electrified fence is going to alter wildlife movement patterns.” Vinkey said he witnessed a cow and calf moose separated by the barrier on two occasions recently. The animals became stressed and were apart for at least 12 hours in one instance; it’s unclear if they were reunited, he said

Kent Brittan, who’s three months away from retirement from his position as chairman of United Technologies International Operations in Connecticut , says he’ll soon have more time to spend in Montana.

YESTERDAY

In our past, we can find the giant hands of first the Amalgamated Copper Company, followed by the Anaconda Copper Company.These two corporations ruled Montana for nearly three fourth of the 20th century.When the copper company finally left the state there were those who celebrated, thinking the yoke had been lifted. Little did they know.

But there was one reason to be optimistic. Left behind from the mining days were staggering environmental problems and massive job losses statewide, but also a corporation known as the Montana Power Company.

Now the old copper barons, in their self-interest, electrified much of Montana early in the century and in retrospect we can see they did a pretty good job. In fact, we might as well face it – this long ago ruling class did a magnificent job if we compare them with the “marketplace knows everything” bungling Republicans who took over the state in the 1990’s .

Of course, those old tyrants had a lot of copper. And electrification, especially hydro power meant great savings in energy as well as as sure fire way of advertising their product. Besides the deep mines in Butte, there were the gigantic smelters in Great Falls and Anaconda, lumber mills in places like St. Regis, Hamilton, Missoula -Bonner and later aluminum plants in Columbia Falls and Great Falls.

In John Gunther’s Inside USA (1947), he noted the Anaconda Copper’s Montana operations used more power in 1940 than the already booming and World War II oriented U.S. airplane manufacturing industry. Although nobody around here is boasting of our recent accomplishments, one must say it does take a certain kind of grandiose incompetence to go from a situation like Gunther described to today’s Montana where we have been reduced to a penniless importer of high priced electricity.

The copper company also applied advanced electrical principles to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad running through the state as well as a heavy industrial line that connected Butte and Anaconda, the Butte, Anaconda and Pacific (BA&P).The little known BA&P, begun in 1892, was completely electrified by 1912 and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul followed in the electrification as it crossed Montana to the Pacific coast.

Today we have the worst railroad service and the highest freight rates in the United States.

So long ago, the Montana Power Company, in order to keep up with the growing demands of the state’s copper industry, built up its generation assets, including coal and natural gas fields, leaving the mining company as well as the state independent, if not indifferent, to the nationwide energy marketplace

In addition, a deal was struck in the depression 1930’s where an elected state comission (1935) would regulate or at least keep an eye on the energy prices charged by Montana Power in exchange for monopoly power. All in all this worked well enough until the 1990’s. Up to then, Montana consumer rates for electricity and natural gas, year after year, were quite moderate, service was reliable, and many residents were investors in its stock as it was considered safe, a “you can count on it” return on a non speculative investment.

But then came the 1990’s and a new governor Marc Racicot and a new Montana Power CEO Robert Gannon, And stuck in the hapless governor’s brain, like flies on flypaper, was a swarm of New Deal hating ideas. One was regulated utility prices were actually socialistic “price controls,” a humbug that Mr. Racicot is still using to defend Montana deregulation.

Egged on by Wall Street bankers and the hollow ideas of Alan Greenspan, this celebrated pair then hatched a lunatic free market deregulation scheme through the state legislature that set off a chain of events that erased the power company from the map, wiped out the shareholders, and for a pittance sold off the copper baron’s former energy assets which are presently in the possession of foreign owners.

Yet, as fantastic as it may seem today, at the time the 1997 deregulation legislation was viewed as the greatest Republican legislative victory in Montana history. And like all the other half-baked free market schemes of the 1990’s, the common people of Montana soon found out that the promises of a deregulation utopia may just as well came from a carnival sideshow barker..

Now, with what was once Montana electricity and natural gas gone, the former 310,000 Montana Power residential customers suddenly find themselves paying the energy prices demanded by the so-called free market which have turned out to be the highest electricity and natural gas rates in the entire Pacific Northwest. In addition, no in-state regulatory power or legislature can save us from this cruel fate. And adding to the misery is this happened in spite of the fact that at present, the state produces twice as much electricity and three times the natural gas annually then it would need to supply everybody within our borders including all users: commercial, institutional, industrial and residential. And, it is in that fact, that we find the real evil of Montana deregulation.

In other words the energy situation in Montana is so goddamn bad that the corporate director of our new energy company was recently quoted in the Montana papers as saying rates are rising because the new company does not own power plants and buys practically all its electricity on the open market. Like it’s our fault?

“If our resources hadn’t been sold off by Montana Power Co., we would still be one of the lowest-cost utilities,” says the corporate guy. And when one corporation starts accusing another corporation, even if defunct, you know its bad.

And having mentioned the new corporation, I must now confess there is even more to this fiasco. You see the money from the sale of the valuable energy assets was plowed into a “stand alone telecommunications company” which quickly went bankrupt and no longer exists. To add to this sad tale, the Montana Power fire sale was run by the Goldman-Sachs New York investment bankers for a hefty cut. One of these sales involved the transmission and natural gas lines serving Montana Power customers.

Now remember, I am not making up what follows. So next we end up with a Sioux Falls, South Dakota holding company named Northwestern Energy to provide our needs.

But in this business the South Dakota lads, the ones chosen by the Wall Street bankers, were all hat and no cattle as they owned no generation or power assets. Like Montana Power in its dying days, the new company was also run by sticky fingered management who, just like the gang at Montana Power again, branched out into other non-utility schemes which failed spectacularly. To make things even worse, shortly after arriving in Montana, our new power company went bankrupt and the original shareholders of what was a seventy year old South Dakota company were also wiped out. But none of this stopped our new utility from asking the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware to approve nearly $17 million in payments and stock options for executives and top managers. Of course, the corporate friendly Delaware court promptly approved the request.

So then we get a NorthWestern Energy Number #2 which somehow emerged from the dark chambers of another Delaware bankruptcy court to serve Montana. As of today the investors are mainly Wall Street bottom feeders and the management is as untrustworthy as the previous one was.

PUBLIC POWER

At present, polls show widespread support for some kind of public power system in Montana. Sixty-two percent in the state favor a Montana cities plan to buy out NorthWestern Energy #2. Only seventeen percent opposed the buy-out, and 21 percent were undecided. NorthWestern’s board of directors has twice rejected the cities’ offer, saying it’s not a good deal for shareholders or the future of the utility. But the public power group is now trying to persuade shareholders to push for a $2.1 billion buy-out.

Another argument, and a big one, for the public power movement is former governor Marc Racicot opposes the idea.

Aside from what’s best for Marc, he has never been right about anything as far as I know. I can’t say what former Montana Power CEO Robert Gannon thinks because he has not been seen in Montana for quite a while. In fact, Gannon sightings are now considered nothing more then odd curiosities, to be considered as seriously as those now and then reports of Elvis being spotted somewhere in the Big Sky.

And a further commentary on what Marc Racicot did for the Republican Party in Montana comes from the same Montana poll which says 55 percent of Republicans now favor the public power idea with twenty one percent opposed and 24 percent undecided.

And I can guarantee you this – as each month’s utility bills arrive – you can expect the poll numbers in favor of the public buyout rising.

For just the other day, our present energy company made a little confession. What they admitted is that in the two “key” electricity contracts with outside providers will expire on July 1, 2007. At present these two contracts account for 55 percent of the state’s electricity needs. Whether these contracts are renewed or newer ones found they will be at a much higher price.

How much higher? Well NorthWestern tells us that “it’s difficult to say how much.” In other words our new energy company #2 doesn’t have a clue.

And why is that you might ask? In a statement released a few days ago Montana was told:

“Future electricity costs will be higher, perhaps substantially higher. Customers should take higher future costs into account when they make decisions about home construction, insulation, appliance purchases and their consumptive behavior.”

And that is the deregulation message in Montana, an incredible comment in a state that is awash in energy, possessing far more electricity and natural gas that it could ever use.

As public power goes, we have no choice but to go with it. To allow this tradition of corporate incompetence and greed to continue is akin to eternally rolling down a hill in a barrel of live snakes and dead fish.

We simply have to make some changes. Time is running out.

JACKIE CORR lives in Butte, Montana jcorr@bigskyhsd.com

 

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