Commentary

Fool me once…

Don’t let deregulation happen again with coal and NWE

April 15, 2021 5:23 am

Colstrip power plant in Colstrip, Montana (Photo by Larry Mayer/Getty Images).

In 1997 a bill deregulating the Montana Power Company passed in the Republican legislature and was signed into law by then-Gov. Marc Racicot.  Montana Power then sold the dams on our rivers, the natural gas reserves for heating homes, and the wires which delivered affordable power to our homes.

Montana Power dumped the profits from these sales into its telecommunications business which went bankrupt. The pensions of Montana Power workers and the retirement savings of thousands of small investors across the state evaporated. Electric deregulation caused years of chaos and spiking energy prices.  The old Montana Power company assets were divvied up by out-of-state corporations and milked for every cent of profit they could get — most of it out of our wallets.

The Public Service Commission was left with no clear role in controlling prices and guaranteeing reliable service. Today it has become a beehive of bickering and right-wing conspiracy theories with commissioners who know almost nothing about energy and prefer to snoop through each other’s e-mails, and snipe at each other in the press — and get paid more than $100,000 per year.

Electric deregulation caused the largest financial hemorrhage in our history.  After elections in 2004 and 2012 which brought Democratic administrations, Montana changed the law and set about rebuilding the utility we used to have.  NorthWestern Energy bought back the dams on our rivers and the natural gas reserves which had been sold to the highest bidders.  Unfortunately, Montana was a desperate buyer, and we paid top dollar all along the way.

And that brings us to this legislative session and Senate Bill 379, NorthWestern Energy’s bold attempt to guarantee their profits and line their investor’s pockets. In rebuilding our utility system after the deregulation debacle, the PSC allowed NorthWestern Energy to purchase an interest in Colstrip and put it into customer rates, meaning that we all pay.

Coal power is dying just like VHS tapes and buggy whips. While Republicans love to point fingers and blame renewable energy and environmental regulations, the fact is that fracking has increased gas supply and driven down the cost of generating power. Anyone with half a lick of sense wants to get out of the coal business; that includes utility companies across the country and energy companies who own shares in the plants at Colstrip. But NorthWestern Energy is clinging to the corpse of the coal industry, hoping to use political trickery to eliminate their risk and make the rest of us pay for their refusal to accept reality.

NorthWestern is holding the bag for a plant which can only remain viable if it is propped up by the Republican legislature and Gianforte administration.  So, they turn to Senator Steve Fitzpatrick, Republican from Great Falls, to introduce a bill protecting them.  His only apparent qualification on energy issues is that his father is the former lobbyist for NorthWestern Energy.  Fitzpatrick’s bill is bad for consumers and Montana’s economy.

Just like in 1997 when the electric deregulation bill passed, a bunch of legislators who know nothing about energy are supporting a bill they don’t understand, relying on corporate lobbyists to show them the way.  A pro-corporate Republican sits in the governor’s office just waiting to sign this bill in the name of protecting jobs and boosting our economy.

Shame on them for fooling us in with electric deregulation in 1997. And shame on us if we allow them to fool us again in 2021. Let your legislator know what you think.

Ken Toole served on the Public Service Commission from 2007 to 2011 and was the only commissioner to vote against placing Colstrip 4 in Montana’s rates.  He was the chairman of the Montana Senate Energy Committee in 2005.  He is currently the Chairman of Big Sky 55+ a progressive seniors advocacy organization and lives outside Cascade.

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