Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) ​​Montanans have flooded the Public Service Commission with more than 500 comments on a petition that would require regulators to consider the effects of climate change in their decisions.

Tuesday, commissioners voted 4-1 to extend the comment period through July 1, albeit with some bickering — and some enthusiasm.

“I’m very excited about the amount of people calling, especially those that are elected officials,” said Commissioner Randy Pinocci, who noted his phone started ringing Tuesday at 6 a.m.

Public Service Commission staff prepared questions about the petition because some parts of the proposal appear to be in conflict, said chief legal counsel Lucas Hamilton on the notice to extend the public comment period.

If adopted, the proposed rule would require commissioners to consider quantitative and qualitative effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment and on human health.

The PSC staff recommended extending the deadline for the commission to obtain more information from petitioners and others and possibly help answer questions from staff.

One of the examples of the question was: “Are any qualitative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions effectively quantified in the proposed sources of the (social cost of greenhouse gas emissions)? If not, how would specific qualitative impacts be accounted for in Commission decisions?”

At the meeting, Hamilton said the extension allows all parties to address the questions and clarify how the proposed rule would function if approved.

PSC President James Brown, who moved to push the deadline even further than outlined in the draft notice, said more time will allow for more input and more opportunity for staff and commissioners to sort through substantive and legal questions.

“This is a matter of high public interest to say the least,” Brown said.

Commissioner Annie Bukacek cast the sole vote in opposition to extending the public comment period. All five elected commissioners are currently Republicans.

Bukacek said she already had received adequate information to oppose the entire petition. She voted against the move to extend public comment, and she opposed Brown’s amendment to push the deadline even further to July 1 instead of May 24.

The rule is being proposed by some 40 businesses and organizations that argue the future of the state depends on addressing negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

They argue not doing so will harm the physical health of people, especially vulnerable children and the elderly, hurt the state’s economic vitality including $5.2 billion in tourism income, and interfere with Montanans’ abilities to enjoy the state’s rivers and mountains.

Opponents, however, argue the result will mean job losses across the state and possibly even higher electricity rates than Montanans already pay. They also contend the move would overstep the Public Service Commission’s authority.

Bukacek said she had received a “clarifying letter” from Rep. Steve Gunderson, a Republican from Libby who is chairperson of the House Natural Resources Committee and urged the PSC to oppose the petition.

“It would be illegal and in contempt of the legislature for the Public Service Commission to take on this role by a change in administrative rules,” Bukacek said, reading from the letter.

Gunderson is not admitted to the state bar.

Commissioner Tony O’Donnell said he agreed he had enough information to oppose the petition, but he believed the PSC was still obligated to accept more public comment.

However, O’Donnell asked Hamilton about the Public Service Commission’s legal authority, and the lawyer agreed the Montana Legislature has an obligation to maintain a clean and healthful environment as the state Constitution requires.

In his response, Hamilton did not address whether the Public Service Commission is exempted from the obligation. He has not written a legal opinion on the question.

At one point in the meeting, Bukacek accused Brown, who led the discussion, of not calling on her and of mischaracterizing her position on the rule. She and Commissioner Jennifer Fielder also exchanged barbs over how to gather public comment.

Fielder said Bukacek had generated so much public comment sent directly to commissioners, the email notifications were interrupting the other work they had to do.

“That’s been highly disruptive, and I do not appreciate it and would ask that you follow proper protocol,” Fielder said; the PSC calls for comments to go to

Bukacek, however, said she welcomed public interaction in any form, and her first duty was to her constituents.

During the meeting, Brown called on Bukacek many times, and he promptly called on her after she cried foul, although he also explained that he’d had the floor earlier.

Brown also stressed the decision Tuesday was simply about extending the time for public comment — not about the substance of the proposal.

“We have pretty much beat this to death, I think,” he said prior to calling for the vote.