By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

The Public Service Commission, a state agency, works to balance the interests of ratepayers with those of the private utility companies that provide services to much of Montana. The PSC regulates public electricity, natural gas, telephone, water, as well as private sewer companies, railroads and some motor carriers. Rural electric co-ops are outside PSC jurisdiction.

The PSC is split into five districts, each represented by a commissioner. Southwest Montana is in District 3.

The race

The race for the District 3 seat has been ferocious, with Republican challenger Roger Koopman repeatedly attacking Democratic incumbent John Vincent’s attendance record.

In a letter to the editor dated Oct. 18, Koopman wrote that Vincent has been “physically missing from 65 percent of PSC meetings (76 percent in 2011), and hasn’t traveled to any important conferences to defend Montana’s interests. View the PSC videos and see the empty chair representing District 3.”

“It’s a matter of being engaged in doing the work of the commission,” Koopman later said in a phone interview.

Vincent is caretaker for his wife, who’s sick with multiple sclerosis, and he has indeed called in via conference call to a number of meetings and hearings.

His attendance, however, has been “pretty much at par” with the other commissioners, said PSC chairman Travis Kavulla, a Republican. The PSC main office is in Helena, but state law requires the commissioners to live in their districts. “I’m not sure where he’s getting those numbers,” Kavulla said of Koopman.

For his part, Vincent claims he’s attended nearly 70 percent of all PSC Helena meetings in person, and 90 percent of all hearings, which take place around the state. “I’ve never been marked absent from any meeting or hearing, not once.”

“A commissioner is considered in attendance whether here in person or on the phone,” said PSC vice chair Gail Gutsche, a Democrat. “It’s also true that Vincent is here for the vast majority of business meetings or hearings, in person.”

The two candidates also argue about how the job should be done.

Koopman, 63, says his opponent isn’t adequately looking out for the interests of consumers, noting Vincent “has never voted against a power company rate increase.”

Vincent, 70, counters he only once had the opportunity to do so, and that the commission’s legal council advised the commission against it. A commissioner since 2009, Vincent maintains “the PSC is required, under state law, to balance the best interests of the utility industry and the best interests of consumers.”

A business owner for 33 years, Koopman says lowering rates for consumers should be the PSC’s chief concern.

“When the PSC is putting the consumer first – the ratepayer first – [it’s] also putting businesses first, jobs first, and putting the utility company first, because as any business person knows, it’s important for businesses to be efficient and use best practices in all they do. If a company isn’t being held accountable, they become weaker.”

The PSC has broad regulatory, supervisory and investigative powers over public utilities. It can investigate the business management of all public utilities, including customer service and reliability standards, as well as rates charged to retail electricity customers. The Montana Consumer Council, a separate entity, is charged solely with speaking for consumers.

“People want the PSC to fight for the lowest rates, and we really do that,” Vincent said, noting that rates for companies regulated by the commission are lower than many surrounding states’.

The candidates

Vincent served in the state House of Representatives from 1975 to 1990, was a Bozeman City Commissioner from 1991 to 1995 (serving two of those years as Mayor), Gallatin County Commissioner from 2001 to 2006, and a teacher at Bozeman High School from 1971 to 2000. In the last few years, he’s spoken out against the MSTI high voltage transmission line, for which NorthWestern Energy just recently scrapped its proposal. He supports renewable energy development.

If reelected, turning back deregulation is on the top of Vincent’s list. Passed by the 1997 state Legislature, the idea was that competitive markets would lower the price of electricity supply. In practice, however, “It leaves the supply rates up to the whims of the market,” and it more than doubled rates.

Vincent also wants to increase the number of free energy audits done in Montana. This, he says, will help boost energy conservation and efficiency, “which is the cheapest way to keep rates down.”

Koopman served four years in the Washington, D.C. offices of Steve Symms (R-Idaho) and Ron Paul (R-Texas), as press secretary and chief of staff. He has worked for the National Rifle Association and started his business, Career Concepts, in 1980. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2004 and 2006, and spent the last three years as a mergers and acquisitions specialist.

For Koopman, cost savings is also about efficiency – but in the business sector. He says his business experience will allow him to hold utility companies more accountable.

“[I will] know what to look for in the details to require them to be more efficient, more competitive. I’m not only helping the consumer and keeping utility rates down, but also helping the company become stronger and more cost effective. One isn’t mutually exclusive to the other.”

If elected, Koopman plans to use PSC hearings “to look more deeply into the companies and ask more delving questions.”

Between hearings, he’d like the commission to do more fact finding, and have PSC staff in the field observing utility companies. As monopolies, he says, the companies are guaranteed a return from the PSC and a customer base. “The PSC has the right to hold them accountable.”

Renewables versus traditional energy sources

While both men agree the PSC should be non-partisan, each has interests aligned with his party.

“I do not believe a commissioner should walk in with an agenda promoting one form of energy over another,” Koopman says. “I believe any form of energy that is reliable, cost effective and affordable is great.”

He cites Vincent’s bias against coal and toward wind, saying “[Vincent] totally misrepresents the cost of coal versus wind energy. Wind is much more expensive – there are hidden costs.”

Although the Legistlature – not the PSC – sets energy policy, it’s something Vincent wants to be involved in. “I think we need people on the PSC willing to look at the long range future of energy in Montana.”

This is evidenced by his efforts fighting MSTI, which would have shipped energy on a 500-kilowatt line from Townshend to Jerome, Idaho.

“We have about 13,000 times the amount of energy we need in Montana,” Vincent said. “We already export 50 to 60 percent of all electricity we generate to out-of-state markets, most on the BPA (Bonneville Power Administration) line coming out of Colstrip.”

“There are bright prospects for a project like MSTI, but I think it’s a decade away. When that time comes, there will be wind power and maybe natural gas that will be viable on the market.” That, he says, might justify the cost of building a $1.5 billion transmission line out of Montana.

Even though bringing more renewable energy resources online might raise rates in the short term, Vincent says it would eventually bring down or stabilize rates, because “the fuel…is free.”

Koopman suggests letting all forms of energy “stand on their own two feet,” letting each compete without having one penalized and another subsidized.

“Anything you prop up, you weaken. Those that want to see so-called renewable energy come more to the fore and be used in higher percentages – the best thing they can do is say, ‘OK, we need a level playing field.’ … The market works, economics work. Trying to create winners and losers will foul things up in a hurry.”

Koopman sees a big future for natural gas – “if the government doesn’t step in and intervene with the marketplace and mess everything up.” He also believes Montana’s ample coal reserves will continue to be important.

Regarding other sources like small-scale hydroelectric power, solar and geothermal, Koopman says the PSC “needs to really cast a wide net and really look at what’s out there and what’s efficient. I think too often they look at whatever the utility company brings before them.”

Montana’s electricity prices are 25 percent lower than the national average, according to the Institute for Energy Research. The state relies on coal for almost 60 percent of its electricity production, with hydroelectricity contributing another third, and wind and petroleum providing smaller amounts.

Home to more than a quarter of the country’s estimated recoverable coal reserves as well as large deposits of oil and natural gas, Montana produces about 4 percent of U.S. coal. It’s also a top hydroelectric producer.