Attorney General intervenes in NorthWestern Energy application

By: - July 22, 2021 3:23 pm

Attorney General Austin Knudsen. (Provided by the Montana Attorney General’s Office for the Daily Montanan.)

An uncommon party is intervening in NorthWestern Energy’s application to add power with the Laurel Generating Station and a couple of other contracts.

In addition to the usual suspects, such as other companies working in the energy industry, conservation groups, and the Montana Consumer Counsel, the intervenors include the State of Montana through Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

Lucas Hamilton, staff attorney for the Montana Public Service Commission, said other agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Quality or Department of Public Health and Human Services, have intervened in the past if they have programs that overlap with the PSC’s jurisdiction over utilities. He said senior staff don’t recall a time the Department of Justice raised its hand to participate.

“No one remembers an instance of DOJ intervening,” Hamilton said in an email.

Lee Banville, political analyst and journalism professor at the University of Montana, said Republicans have taken a keen interest in matters that involve the PSC, which regulates utilities in Montana. The Montana Legislature has, and now, the AG is interpreting his authority or mandate as broader than attorneys general have done in the past.

“The attorney general, or Attorney General’s Office, is taking a very activist role of what his position is and what he should be involved in, more so than what attorneys general have in the past,” Banville said. He said that’s the case even though the Montana Supreme Court has said the AG’s office has overstepped his bounds elsewhere.

Typically, Banville said the AG steps in when it appears clear the system in place is incapable of representing the interests of Montanans. In this case, he said it appears the AG’s involvement could be directed at the Montana Consumer Counsel, whose role is to look out for ratepayers.

In this case, the AG might want the opportunity to advocate for a position or make a broader statement about energy policy, he said. Regardless, he said, the involvement will complicate the process, because now, an entity representing the entire state of Montana is stepping into the conversation, which will change the dynamic.

Banville said the position also is interesting for future state policy debates involving other agencies, not just the current docket with the PSC. The PSC approved the AG’s involvement.

“What it does is it sets a precedent that the attorney general can advocate or at least comment on policy-making decision by other entities with the government,” Banville said. “He could do the same thing with the Board of Regents,” which oversees higher education, for example.

The Montana Consumer Counsel declined to comment on the AG’s role in the case.

If approved, the Laurel project would be significant, a $250 million natural gas fired plant that would add 325 megawatts and take a bite out of the monopoly utility’s estimated 555 megawatt deficit during peak power, according to NorthWestern Energy. The application with the PSC also proposes a purchase agreement of 100 megawatts of hydropower and a contract for a 50-megawatt battery storage system.

The AG’s Office did not respond to a voicemail and emails for comment on the reason it is taking the unusual step of participating in a Public Service Commission docket. But the application is a significant one.

“Central to this proceeding is NorthWestern Energy’s request for approval to acquire three capacity resources for the provision of power to the citizens of Montana,” said the AG’s petition to intervene. “Consequently, this proceeding is of concern to the general public as it involves the provision of reliable service at competitive and affordable rates with decreased volatility through added capacity.

“Because the citizens of Montana have an strong interest in the provision of reliable energy at competitive rates, even in times of high demand, Attorney General Knudsen considers intervention in this matter necessary for the preservation of order and the protection of public rights.”

NorthWestern Energy’s Jo Dee Black said the utility concurs with the stance the AG’s Office has taken in its petition: “NorthWestern Energy agrees the approval of these resources is necessary for reliable service at competitive and affordable rates with decreased volatility in rates.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.