By Missoula Current

The Havre Pipeline Company may not abandon service to its rural natural gas customers without first obtaining permission from the Montana Public Service Commission, a Montana District Court has ruled.

Havre Pipeline and its parent owner, NorthWestern Energy, went to court seeking to overturn an order by the PSC that held that farm taps are a public utility service, not an unregulated contract that could be abandoned at the companies’ sole discretion.

Farm taps take gas directly from northern Montana’s system of gathering lines to serve rural homes and agricultural operations.

“This is only the latest in a pattern of frivolous litigation by NorthWestern Energy,” said PSC member Travis Kavulla. “The judge clearly saw it for what it was.”

Judge Yvonne Laird’s ruling granted the a joint motion by the PSC and the Montana Consumer Counsel to dismiss the utility’s lawsuit.

Laird ruled that an identical matter had been litigated in a 1995 proceeding and that duplicative litigation, such as the companies’ lawsuit, was barred by a legal doctrine.

“Unfortunately, while NorthWestern attorneys have tied this matter up in court, some customers have experienced declining pressures off of farm taps that have led to an effective abandonment of service,” Kavulla said.

In the past, when customers served by farm taps have lost service due to declining production at nearby gas wells, utilities have offered a free conversion to propane service and a certain time allowance of propane supply at the price of natural gas.

The PSC is asking Havre Pipeline customers who have concerns about the company’s service to call or write with concerns at (800) 646-6150 or