Utility Slug – noun- Politicians and lobbyists who routinely advocate for the interests of monopoly utilities and their stockholders over the interests of small customers and consumers. Synonyms: corporate hack, sell out, shill, swindler
Senator Steve Fitzpatrick has a long history of carrying water for NorthWestern Energy in the Legislature. This session he is starting right out of the gate with an effort to muzzle the office that represents consumers in utility rate cases. Details are here: https://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/legislators-attempting-to-muzzle-state-consumer-advocate/article_59f6012a-7a84-11ed-a3b0-cfc3799411b4.html
But first, a little history
What is really happening here has a lot to do with the Colstrip plants in Eastern Montana. These plants were built around 50 years ago by a consortium of utility corporations located in the Northwest. For years, the Montana Power Company operated and took a share of the power from the plants and made sure that the “Colstrip Partners” were getting their share of the output.
The old Montana Power Company went bankrupt after it was “deregulated” by Republicans in the legislature and the Racicot Administration. After a long period of economic upheaval NorthWestern Energy emerged from the ashes of the deregulation and took on a large (expensive) chunk of power from the Colstrip complex as well as assuming responsibility for operating the plants.
Everybody knows coal power is a bad deal—except the Montana legislature
Today coal has become a marginal and very costly source of power. Part of that is associated with the realization that coal is a major source of green house gasses and continuing to burn it is, well. . .suicidal. More importantly, the increasing availability of renewable power that is much more efficient than burning coal as well as advances in “fracking” technology that has increased our supply of natural gas has left coal as the least desirable and most expensive source of energy out there. Today there is no market for coal plants or the power they produce. On top of that, the plants also carry significant liability for environmental clean up.
Most of the Colstrip partners have accepted that getting out of the Colstrip mess was going to be expensive, but that it was better to get out of the deal, accept the losses, and move on. But NorthWestern has been slow to make a similar conclusion. Through the PSC and in the legislature, NorthWestern Energy has been trying one way or another to put the public on the hook both for buying expensive and dirty coal power and for the clean-up that will come. (Odd fact— the town of Colstrip already has to pipe water from 30 miles away because it’s wells have been contaminated by the Colstrip plants.) Most of those efforts have been thwarted by a constitutionally-created agency called the Montana Consumer Counsel, which was created by the Montana Constitution to represent consumers in the legal arena and in the legislature.
Meanwhile, back to Fitpatrick’s schemes
Fast forward to Steve Fitzpatrick and his legislative shenanigans. (Another Odd fact—Fitpatrick’s father, John Fitzpatrick, is a long time lobbyist for NorthWestern Energy and just got elected to the Montana House of Representatives.) In the last session of the legislature, Fitzpatrick introduced a bill which prohibited the Consumer Counsel from taking positions on bills without the permission of the Legislative Consumer Committee. That bill failed . . .thankfully.
Now Steve Fitzpatrick is the chairman of the senate rules committee. And lo and behold, Fitzpatrick is proposing a legislative rule to require the Montana Consumer Counsel to get permission from the Legislative Consumer Committee — which Fitzpatrick has more ability to control — before taking a position on any legislation. If Fitzpatrick and his pals at Northwestern Energy succeed, Montana consumers will be paying for these old, dirty coal plants for decades into the future.