Another Utility Disaster Headed Our Way

Photograph Source: P.primo – CC BY-SA 3.0

Twenty years ago Montana’s Republicans enacted the worst and most costly public policy decision in the state’s history. Overwhelming Republican majorities in the state legislature and Republican Gov. Marc Racicot colluded to launch a very complex bill hundreds of pages long near the very end of the legislative session that would overturn the historic regulation of monopoly public utilities in favor of what they called “consumer choice.”

Now, with Colstrip’s coal-fired power plants closing much earlier than predicted due to coal’s economic disadvantage against natural gas, wind and solar electricity production, Montana’s all-Republican Montana Public Service Commission is about to allow another corporate-friendly, consumer-disastrous decision that will offload hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to consumers, some of whom will never use the power for which they will be charged.

For those new to Montana, the deregulation debacle is worth telling as a cautionary tale of what happens when single party rule takes precedence over the good of the populace. Governor Racicot was friends with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who supported Enron, a Texas energy corporation that championed deregulation. Racicot jumped on Bush’s deregulation train, hoping to ride it to Washington, D.C., if Bush became president.

The Montana Power Company (MPC) had long enjoyed a monopoly over the state’s consumers as a “regulated utility” that was allowed to develop generation sources, roll the costs into the consumer rate base plus a 10% profit. The costs and rates were overseen by an elected Public Service Commission tasked with protecting consumers’ interests and Montanans had the lowest-cost power in the northwest region.

But corporate greed and faulty political ideology set the stage for disaster. MPC’s CEO, Bob Gannon, wanted to transform it into a telecommunications company, Touch America. To generate capital, Montana’s consumer-funded hydroelectric dams were sold to Pennsylvania Power and Light — an out-of-state corporation looking forward to the tidy profits from supplying unregulated monopoly power to the state’s consumers at whatever the market would bear.

Zoom forward to now. Enron went bankrupt, MPC crashed — taking pensions and stock holdings with it — and Touch America failed. PPL sold the dams to South Dakota’s NorthWestern Energy (NWE), for nearly a billion bucks. The legislature re-regulated utilities and Montanans now get to pay again for the dams they already paid for once, resulting in the highest power prices in the northwest region. Colstrip is on the rocks, but not before the Public Service Commission OK’d $400 million in debt to be passed on to consumers. And NWE is trying to stick consumers with millions more for power it bought when Colstrip’s generators were offline due to mercury emissions violations. To top it off, NWE is trying to hit solar panel owners for a ridiculous line maintenance charge.

Meanwhile, the all-Republican Public Service Commission’s internal war was highlighted by Commissioner Roger Koopman’s recent opinion column slamming fellow commissioners and Commission Chair Brad Johnson for abusing travel expenditures, conducting backroom hiring deals and failing to notify the public of increased millions in ratepayer charges. Calling the current PSC “habitually dysfunctional, politically dominated,” Koopman concluded with: “The question is, at the end of the day, can elected officials bury their egos and ambitions long enough to put the people’s business ahead of their own? Recent events would suggest that where the Montana PSC is concerned, the answer is ‘no.’”

The real question, it seems, is whether Montanans should continue to be the victims of Republicans’ corporate-friendly, consumer-disastrous policies and decisions. And as Koopman so succinctly put it, “the answer is no.”

More articles by:

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

Weekend Edition
February 21, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Election Con 2020: Exposing Trump’s Deception on the Opioid Epidemic
Joshua Frank
Bloomberg is a Climate Change Con Man
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Billion Dollar Babies
Paul Street
More Real-Time Reflections from Your Friendly South Loop Marxist
Jonathan Latham
Extensive Chemical Safety Fraud Uncovered at German Testing Laboratory
Ramzy Baroud
‘The Donald Trump I know’: Abbas’ UN Speech and the Breakdown of Palestinian Politics
Martha Rosenberg
A Trump Sentence Commutation Attorneys Generals Liked
Ted Rall
Bernie Should Own the Socialist Label
Louis Proyect
Encountering Malcolm X
Kathleen Wallace
The Debate Question That Really Mattered
Jonathan Cook
UN List of Firms Aiding Israel’s Settlements was Dead on Arrival
George Wuerthner
‘Extremists,’ Not Collaborators, Have Kept Wilderness Whole
Colin Todhunter
Apocalypse Now! Insects, Pesticide and a Public Health Crisis  
Stephen Reyna
A Paradoxical Colonel: He Doesn’t Know What He is Talking About, Because He Knows What He is Talking About.
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A New Solar Power Deal From California
Richard Moser
One Winning Way to Build the Peace Movement and One Losing Way
Laiken Jordahl
Trump’s Wall is Destroying the Environment We Worked to Protect
Walden Bello
Duterte Does the Right Thing for a Change
Jefferson Morley
On JFK, Tulsi Gabbard Keeps Very Respectable Company
Vijay Prashad
Standing Up for Left Literature: In India, It Can Cost You Your Life
Gary Leupp
Bloomberg Versus Bernie: The Upcoming Battle?
Ron Jacobs
The Young Lords: Luchadores Para La Gente
Richard Klin
Loss Leaders
Gaither Stewart
Roma: How Romans Differ From Europeans
Kerron Ó Luain
The Soviet Century
Mike Garrity
We Can Fireproof Homes But Not Forests
Fred Baumgarten
Gaslighting Bernie and His Supporters
Joseph Essertier
Our First Amendment or Our Empire, But Not Both
Peter Linebaugh
A Story for the Anthropocene
Danny Sjursen
Where Have You Gone Smedley Butler?
Jill Richardson
A Broken Promise to Teachers and Nonprofit Workers
Binoy Kampmark
“Leave Our Bloke Alone”: A Little Mission for Julian Assange
Wade Sikorski
Oil or Food? Notes From a Farmer Who Doesn’t Think Pipelines are Worth It
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of Vengeance
Hilary Moore – James Tracy
No Fascist USA! Lessons From a History of Anti-Klan Organizing
Linn Washington Jr.
Ridiculing MLK’s Historic Garden State ‘Firsts’
L. Michael Hager
Evaluating the Democratic Candidates: the Importance of Integrity
Jim Goodman
Bloomberg Won’t, as They Say, Play Well in Peoria, But Then Neither Should Trump
Olivia Alperstein
We Need to Treat Nuclear War Like the Emergency It Is
Jesse Jackson
Kerner Report Set Standard for What a Serious Presidential Candidate Should Champion
Home Sweet Home: District Campaign Financing
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Latest BLM Hoodwinkery: “Fuel Breaks” in the Great Basin
Wendell Griffen
Grace and Gullibility
Nicky Reid
Hillary, Donald & Bernie: Three Who Would Make a Catastrophe
David Yearsley
Dresden 75