Public Service Commission Extends Comment Deadline for Climate Petition

The commission zeroed in on the mechanics of carbon accounting in its April 30 order

By Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press
Judge Kathy Seeley speaks during a hearing in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 12, 2023. Thom Bridge, Independent Record

The Montana Public Service Commission voted Tuesday to reopen comment on a petition that seeks to integrate climate impacts into the commission’s regulatory work.

Following the commission’s 4-1 vote, the public will have until July 1 to weigh in on the petition, which asks regulators to adopt a framework for considering climate impacts in its oversight of monopoly power companies.

At the recommendation of agency staff, commissioners will also take a closer look at the mechanics of implementing the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions, a framework used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to measure “the net social benefits” of reducing emissions, as well as the cost of letting them rise. In order to better understand how the proposed rules would influence commission work, PSC staff have developed a list of about 20 questions they’ll put before the petitioners.

Forty-one businesses and nonprofit organizations filed the petition with the PSC seven months after a state judge found in the Held v. Montana youth climate lawsuit that the climate is part of the environment and therefore subject to the “clean and healthful environment” protections enshrined in Montana’s Constitution. The petitioners include nonprofits such as the Montana Environmental Information Center and Families for a Livable Climate as well as businesses such as Bridger Bowl Ski Area and Parks’ Fly Shop in Gardiner.

Earlier this month, petition signers and supporters packed into the PSC chambers in Helena to urge the state’s elected utility board to analyze the harm wrought by greenhouse gas-emitting power plants during its regulation of monopoly utility companies such as NorthWestern Energy and Montana Dakota Utilities. In their comments, proponents of the effort cited the Held v. Montana ruling, the commission’s statutory directive to act in the public interest, and the impacts of climate change on their livelihoods and recreational heritage.

Commissioners also heard from opponents during that April 8 hearing. Some, like NorthWestern Energy and the Montana Chamber of Commerce, argued that adopting new rules to account for climate impacts could make electricity more expensive and less reliable for Montana’s utility companies — and, by extension, for their customers. Others, including the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to education about “the important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy,” argued that the types of climate impacts petitioners cited in their filing, i.e., decreasing snowpacks, aren’t actually occurring. Still others, such as the AFL-CIO, a workers’ union, said they weren’t debating whether the climate is changing, only what the petition means for workers reliant on high-paying fossil fuel jobs to support themselves and their families.

During their meeting Tuesday, commissioners glancingly referenced the arguments made by commenters during the April 8 meeting.

PSC President James Brown said he has questions about how the rules proposed by petitioners would work in practice.

“I think it is advisable for us, given the high public interest in this, to reopen the public comment period to allow our staff and the commissioners to ask questions, which we were unable to do during the public hearing on this matter,” he said.

District 5 Commissioner Ann “Annie” Bukacek of Kalispell described the petition as an attempt to bestow authority on the commission that properly belongs with the Montana Legislature. The commission was envisioned as a body of economic, not environmental, regulators, she said.  

“The social costs of greenhouse gases metric is at a minimum controversial and therefore has no place in the PSC decisions if we are to be objective arbiters,” Bukacek continued in calling for commissioners to deny the petition rather than devote further time to exploring it.

District 2 Commissioner Tony O’Donnell of Billings said he was inclined to agree with Bukacek’s assessment, but believes that Montanans’ constitutional right to participate in government requires that the commission take a closer look at the details of the proposed rulemaking.

Staff have tallied more than 500 comments on the petition, and several commissioners said they’d fielded phone calls and emails from constituents right up to the start of the day’s meeting.

In the coming weeks, PSC staff will seek more information on a variety of questions related to the rulemaking petition. Such questions include whether the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions should be used during the “ratemaking” proceedings in which the commission weighs in on a utility’s proposed rate increases; whether a similar framework should be used in the regulation of natural gas service; and whether petitioners are asking the commission to go a step beyond analysis and adopt rules directing them to favor lower-emission energy sources in regulatory decisions.

Written public comments may be submitted in person or by mail to the Public Service Commission at its office in Helena or by email to [email protected]. Comments may also be submitted to the commission’s automated document management system, REDDI. Instructions for submitting comments via REDDI are available at psc.mt.gov/reddi-help.  

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.