Over the last 20 years as a practicing attorney, Monica Tranel has addressed the Montana Public Service Commission on a number of occasions, most recently while representing a client looking to invest nearly $200 million in renewable energy in the state.
Along the way, Tranel, now a candidate for the commission, observed a governing body she believes lacks the technical knowledge and scientific understanding needed to move Montana into the energy future.
“The most important thing to me is to elevate the level of professionalism and competence,” Tranel said. “These are technically difficult issues, and we need people who are willing to dig in, ask questions and make decisions based on evidence, based on a fair process, and based on facts, science and the law.”
Tranel was raised on a ranch in eastern Montana and made a name for herself as a rower on the U.S. Olympic team. She worked for former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns for a time and has spent more than two decades practicing as an attorney, much of it before the Public Service Commission.
During a hearing last summer, while representing wind developer Marty Wilde, Tranel witnessed a commission she described as disconnected with the times and no longer able to represent the interests of consumers.
One commissioner claimed that wind turbines often “fly off and kill people.” Another said the climate was getting colder, not warmer. Another was caught on a hot mic saying rate and contract cuts made by the PSC would be deep enough to kill future renewable energy projects.
“It’s been a crazy time where there’s a lot of disinformation and misinformation, but that wasn’t the Montana I grew up in,” said Tranel. “This is a non partisan agency. We need to have competent, professional people willing to make decisions based on science, the facts and the law.”
While Tranel said politics don’t run in her DNA, she entered the PSC race to repent District 4 earlier this year and defeated a field of candidates. She’ll face Jennifer Fielder in the General Election
Tranel cites President Teddy Roosevelt in describing her philosophy if elected to the commission saying, “It’s important to do what we can with where we’re at with what we have.” Sticking with the status quo in the world of energy, she said, has placed Montana at a disadvantage.
“I can change this agency,” she said. “This is something I can affect because I know what it is, how it works, and I can walk in there on Day One and I know what to do and how to do it.”
Tranel also cites climate change as an issue needing immediate attention. The state has been slow to address the issue and some political leaders, including members of the PSC, still dispute the science.
But while some leaders in Montana shrug off the science, other states and countries are not, and they’re now moving into the new energy future. Tranel believes that state still has time to lead on the issue and reap the economic rewards that would come with a smart transition.
“Combined, we are in a position to lead the energy transition,” she said. “It’s happening and it’s under way. People are very interested and want to invest in Montana. It would bring jobs here. From Montanans’ perspective, it’s unacceptable that we’re letting politics hold back what is possible through engineering and what’s economically in everyone’s best interest.”
In recent years at least, the Montana Public Service Commission has been led be Republicans. Over the years, advocates of change believe the commission’s lack of balance is reflected in the state’s lack of progress.
Tranel admits it won’t be easy to unseat Lake and win seven western Montana counties, five of which are predominantly conservative. But while riding her bike from the Canadian border to Ravalli County this summer, she learned that residents across the region aren’t as divided as the media often makes them out to be.
“My experience on the ground is that people are willing to listen and talk to each other,” she said. “People want things that work that they don’t have to pay a lot of money for. Renewable energy offers that. If Montana moves in the right direction, the investment could amount to billions of dollars. Montana has it to offer, and people at the commission should be facilitating that, not stopping it.”