Voters in districts around Missoula, Billings and Bozeman will have the chance this fall to select new leadership for the Montana Public Service Commission, the regulatory body at the center of the state’s energy politics, and an agency that has been rocked over the past year by a series of scandals.

The PSC, where all five seats are currently held by Republicans, is tasked with regulating energy utilities and other companies that operate with captive customer bases, ensuring those companies don’t use their monopoly power to overcharge consumers.

For example, most Montanans have only one option for residential electric service. Without regulatory oversight, electric companies could charge whatever rates they please for an essential service. With assistance from the agency’s professional staff, PSC commissioners decide on rates that give each Montana utility a fair profit margin after evaluating the cost of power generation and other business expenses.

The PSC’s highest profile subject is NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest power company, though it also regulates smaller power utilities, privately owned water companies and garbage haulers. The agency also has several other regulatory responsibilities, such as refereeing contract negotiations between NorthWestern and small renewable power producers that have a legal right to sell power onto the company’s grid.

Additionally, the PSC is routinely involved in helping the Montana Legislature craft energy policy. The commission, for example, voted to endorse the 2019 Legislature’s ‘Save Colstrip’ bill.

As such, PSC commissioners play a central role in complex policy debates about Montana’s energy future as the power sector, environmental advocates, and lawmakers grapple with the implications of human-caused climate change, aging coal plants and potential renewable power development. One of the major items on the PSC’s current docket, for example, is Northwestern Energy’s proposal to buy an expanded stake in the Colstrip power plant as West Coast utilities divest from coal.

The utility commission has also been beset in recent years by interpersonal conflict and scandals. And it has faced a series of court rulings in which judges have determined that commissioners failed to properly apply the law to renewable energy projects.

One sitting commissioner, Roger Koopman of Bozeman, has gone so far as to publicly accuse his colleagues of incompetency, criticizing other commissioners for failing to consistently read briefing materials prepared by agency staff, among other alleged lapses.

At an Aug. 3 virtual campaign event organized by Democratic PSC candidate Tom Woods, Koopman described how each of the five current commissioners had been provided with a collection of binders containing legal materials and other information about the proceedings during a major NorthWestern Energy rate-setting case that was settled last year.

“Four sets of those never came off the shelf,” Koopman said.

“You’ve got to have people who have a work ethic and who are curious, intellectually curious, about the opportunities that are before them as commissioners,” Koopman added. 

Another commissioner, Randy Pinocci of Sun River, has repeatedly attended “Red Pill Expo” events to present alongside speakers promoting fringe theories about childhood vaccines, 5G internet and climate change.

The Billings Gazette also reported last month that documents released by the agency indicated that Pinocci and agency Communications Director Drew Zinecker had at one point surreptitiously reviewed Koopman’s PSC account emails. Several of those emails, many including derogatory comments about Koopman’s colleagues and some including highly sensitive personal information, were leaked to a right-wing website that published them in January

Pinocci and Zinecker also appeared on a February webcast published by that same outlet, NorthWest Liberty News, where they accused Koopman of being at risk of committing workplace violence. (According to the Great Falls Tribune, Koopman dismissed that allegation as “sheer lunacy.”) 

Last year, Koopman also accused then-Commission Chairman Brad Johnson and Zinecker of distributing false information to the press after the PSC voted to approve a $6.5 million rate increase in the NorthWestern Energy rate case and failed to mention that figure in a press release summarizing the commission’s actions. Johnson later apologized, calling the failure an oversight and noting that the specific vote was just one of several actions the PSC took as the rate case was concluding.

Furthermore, public statements critical of renewable energy projects made by commissioners led a district judge last year to conclude that the PSC had exhibited improper bias and violated the due process rights of a solar energy company that had taken a contract dispute with NorthWestern before the commission. Those statements included 2016 and 2017 newspaper opinion columns published by three commissioners — Johnson, Koopman and Tony O’Donnell — as well as a 2017 “hot mic” comment where Commissioner Bob Lake appeared to admit the PSC was setting rates and contract lengths that discourage solar development.

In rulings in that and another case in recent months, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed lower-court orders that had forced the PSC to reconsider decisions that renewable energy advocates said had harmed sustainable energy development — by, among other actions, failing to award renewable projects a rate credit for producing power without generating greenhouse gas emissions. The agency had argued that it was prioritizing contract terms that minimized electricity prices paid by consumers.

Montana Public Service Commission Districts Credit: PSC

The PSC’s five commissioners are elected to four-year terms representing specific portions of the state. Two commissioners, Great Falls-area Commissioner Pinocci and Helena-Kalispell Commissioner Johnson, are halfway through their terms and aren’t up for election this fall. Two more, Koopman and Lake, are term-limited off the commission after eight years of service.

The remaining commissioner, O’Donnell, is seeking re-election after fending off challengers in a three-way Republican primary this spring for the district representing Billings and southeast Montana.

Seats on the PSC are some of the highest-paid jobs in state government, with a base salary of $109,000. In comparison, the Montana governor earns just over $118,000 a year.

The candidates on the 2020 ballot are as follows:

District 2

Carbon, Yellowstone, Treasure, Rosebud, Big Horn, Powder River, Custer, Prairie, Fallon and Carter counties, including Billings.

Tony O’Donnell (Republican incumbent)

Tony O’Donnell at a 2019 PSC hearing Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Before his election to the PSC in 2016, O’Donnell, 71, ran janitorial and dry cleaning businesses and worked at Lowe’s Home Improvement in Billings. That background, he said in an interview, helps him think about the commission’s work less like a lawyer or policy expert and more like a public citizen of the “real world.”

“The ratepayers have a four-year investment in me. I think I’ve done them well,” he said.

He also defended the agency’s record, saying the well-publicized strife between commissioners Koopman and Pinocci hasn’t harmed the PSC’s ability to effectively serve the public.

“The newspapers gave the impression of a dysfunctional Public Service Commission,” he said. “Their dispute between the two of them has never affected a single decision of the Public Service Commission. Not one. There’s no disruption, no dysfunction going on right there.”

He pointed to the NorthWestern rate case settled last year as an example, saying the $6.5 million increase was tens of millions less than the company initially asked for.

“The PSC does not represent ratepayers or shareholders. We’re meant to be the arbiter in between those,” he said. “I think we have done a very, very good job of that.”

O’Donnell also disputed Koopman’s allegation that he and other commissioners haven’t been diligent about doing their homework before commission meetings, saying he personally makes an effort to read briefing materials in their entirety.

“I read most of them, though sometimes I simply run out of time because they’re so voluminous,” he said.

O’Donnell was fined $2,000 by the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices this year for filming a campaign video in his office that featured the PSC’s official seal. Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan concluded that action violated a state ethics law that bars state employees from using public resources for private political purposes. O’Donnell said he thinks the COPP ruling went “way overboard.”

O’Donnell, whose district includes the town of Colstrip, said he’s worried power companies may not be able to keep Montana’s electricity supply reliable if they move away from coal power. He’s skeptical, he said, that the battery technology touted by renewable energy advocates is robust enough to effectively level out power supply peaks and valleys that accompany wind and solar generation.

He’s also skeptical that human activity is driving climate change, saying he hasn’t studied the issue closely and doesn’t consider the matter relevant to the PSC’s work, given the laws that guide the agency’s regulatory actions.

“We have no authority whatever for incenting, or favoring or disfavoring any type of energy,” he said.

Valerie McMurtry (Democrat)

Valerie McMurtry Credit: Provided

McMurtry, 70, is a retired special education teacher and longtime Billings resident. She said she decided to run against O’Donnell after becoming frustrated with the PSC’s handling of public outreach around the NorthWestern Energy Electricity Supply Resource Procurement plan presented to the commission last year.

She’s also critical of the PSC’s drama generally and O’Donnell’s performance specifically, accusing him of missing too many commission meetings and failing to stand up for ratepayer interests against NorthWestern. An image on her campaign website shows her holding a copy of the Billings Gazette with a front page headline reading “PSC infighting exposed.”

“I would be there. I would show up. I would not rubber stamp what NorthWestern Energy requests,” she said. “I think it’s important that when you have these hearings, that the public service commissioners ask questions, that they demand justification for rate increases.” 

McMurtry says that by her count, O’Donnell missed 55% of the PSC’s weekly meetings last year. O’Donnell disputes that, saying McMurtry’s calculation doesn’t account for meetings he attended by phone and several he missed while traveling on official business.

McMurtry said she believes coal must remain part of Montana’s energy picture in the near-term, but that the long-term trend is clearly toward natural gas and renewable sources.

“My belief right now is that we have to look at all forms of energy,” she said. “The tide is coming and is turning, and I don’t think Montana should be left behind.”

She’s also said she’s “extremely” worried about climate change.

“I have children and grandchildren and I want them to inherit a world that’s still functioning,” she said.

District 3

Beaverhead, Deer Lodge, Silver Bow, Jefferson, Madison, Broadwater, Gallatin, Park, Meagher, Wheatland, Sweet Grass, Golden Valley, Musselshell and Stillwater counties, including Butte and Bozeman. Current Commissioner Roger Koopman faces term limits.

Tom Woods (Democrat)

Tom Woods Credit: J.P. Edge/Community News Service

Woods, 59, is a physics instructor at Montana State University currently wrapping up an eight-year stint as a state representative. Facing term limits in the House, he said in an interview he’s running for a PSC seat in an effort to improve what he sees as a “probably one of the most dysfunctional government agencies that we have.”

“The more I’ve learned about how utility regulation does or doesn’t work in this state, the less I like it,” he said.

If elected, Woods said, he’d take a harder-line stance against NorthWestern, pushing the company to be more aggressive about adding renewable energy sources that can reduce Montana’s carbon footprint and, he believes, give ratepayers a better deal.

Woods argues that the regulatory system in Montana creates perverse incentives for NorthWestern to own as much of its own generating capacity as possible, giving the utility a motive to oppose third-party development of wind and solar generation.

“It’s time to change the paradigm,” Woods said. “We’ve been doing what’s best for the company. And that’s not what’s best for the rest of the state.”

Woods said he’s concerned about climate change and lamented that it has become a “red versus blue issue.” He thinks there’s also a case to be made for renewable power sources in purely economic terms.

“I would take as a commissioner the tack of: ‘What is best for our pocketbooks, the ratepayers — how do we get the company to remain a solvent company and yet change the way that they are doing business?’” Woods said.

James Brown (Republican)

James Brown Credit: Provided

Brown, 49, who filed for office as a Dillon resident, is an attorney who has lobbied on behalf of several industry groups, including the Montana Wool Growers Association, Citizens for Balanced Use and Montana Solid Waste Contractors.

He said his legal experience representing small wind and solar producers before the PSC and running his own law firm has prepared him to serve on the commission.

“In many ways, I’m able to make decisions without having to rely on staff, based on my own legal background,” he said. “I know these laws.”

Brown also criticized the current commission, saying he doesn’t see how anyone can be satisfied with the way the agency is being run.

“For years, the PSC has been criticized for having personality conflicts dominate its important regulatory mission, and for the last several years you’ve really seen that play out, where it’s gone from being personal petty grievances to being downright destructive to the PSC and its mission,” he said.

Brown said he has a more conservative take than his opponent, Woods, on how much leeway commissioners have for explicit advocacy about consumer and environmental causes. That work, he said, is more appropriate for the state Legislature.

Brown also said he thinks human action has impacted the climate, but he believes that’s a legislative matter rather than something the PSC should be sorting out in its regulatory proceedings.

“Climate change is not one of those areas where the commission is given authority or discretion to factor into decision making,” he said. “As an attorney, I’m one who believes strongly that regulators should stay within the mission that’s granted to them.”

District 4

Lincoln, Sanders, Mineral, Missoula, Ravalli, Granite and Powell counties, including the city of Missoula. Current Commissioner Bob Lake faces term limits.

Jennifer Fielder (Republican)

Jennifer Fielder Credit: Provided

Fielder, who lives outside Thompson Falls, has served as a state senator for eight years, chairing the Senate Fish & Game Committee in the 2017 and 2019 sessions. She previously owned a company, Silverline Construction, performing project management and landscaping work that she said sometimes brought her into contact with federal resource management negotiations.

“That’s given me a really good understanding of fair business practices,” she said in an interview. “I know what price gouging looks like.”

Fielder, 54, also served while a state lawmaker as CEO of the American Lands Council, a conservative group that advocates transferring federal lands to state ownership. In her capacity with the council, she delivered a presentation last year at a climate change conference sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that promotes skepticism of mainstream climate science. A video of that talk is featured on her campaign website.

Fielder also spoke at a 2018 event alongside anti-federal government activist Cliven Bundy and drew criticism earlier this year for a Facebook post that spread false rumors about vans of “Antifa” activists traveling to Missoula.

She said she sees her advocacy for federal public lands transfer, which has drawn opposition from environmental groups that predict it would result in privatization of public lands, as distinct from the utility policy she would be involved with at the PSC.

She also said she doesn’t see climate change as a pressing concern.

“I’m not real worried about climate change, to tell you the truth. I think that there’s an awful lot, of politicized science that’s being used in that argument,” she said.

“I do not subscribe to the alarmism that’s being promulgated by the extreme left at all,” she said. “Nor do I subscribe to the ‘fossil fuels are completely harmless’ narrative that’s coming from the industry on the right, either. I think we just need to look at things objectively.”

Fielder said her experience in business and the Legislature will let her bring a more professional approach to the PSC, which she said currently has “a tremendous opportunity for improvement.”

“I will put my nose down and do the work that needs to be done,” she said.

Monica Tranel (Democrat)

Monica Tranel Credit: Courtesy Tranel campaign

Tranel, 54, is a Missoula-based attorney who touts her long experience with several different roles in and adjacent to the Public Service Commission, arguing that she has the legal chops to make sure the utility regulator gives renewable energy a fair shake.

Earlier in her career, she served as a staff attorney for the PSC and also worked for Montana Consumer Counsel, the office tasked with representing ratepayer interests in commission proceedings. More recently, she has run her own law firm, which often represents clients on PSC business.

“My background gives me really the full perspective of how all the different stakeholders come to the commission,” she said in an interview.

Tranel represented one of the renewable energy companies, Windata, LLC, in the lawsuit where renewable developers persuaded the Montana Supreme Court the PSC hadn’t treated them fairly. The PSC, she said, had decided shortly after the GOP gained control of the White House in the 2016 election that a proposed wind power generation project shouldn’t get financial credit for producing carbon-free energy — a decision the state Supreme Court reversed this year after lengthy litigation.

“That project is not going to get built,” she said. “I have experienced directly the consequences of having a commission that doesn’t follow the law, that doesn’t follow facts.”

“In a regulatory body, we need people who know what they’re doing, who can go in there and do the job and do it professionally,” she said.

She also argues that the PSC has the latitude to be more aggressive about encouraging NorthWestern to invest in renewable energy.

“The commission has sort of taken a hands-off approach,” she said. “I think there are ways the commission can show leadership and hold the utility accountable.”

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.