The Montana Public Service Commission on Thursday voted to continue a statewide program to conserve natural gas by providing energy audits and incentives for programmable thermostats and other heating technologies.

The 3-2 vote came after Montana-Dakota Utilities asked the PSC to approve more than $500,000 for the program over three-years, or until March 2020.

MDU serves nearly 84,000 gas customers in eastern Montana.

“The evidence shows that by each of the cost-benefit tests that we use, MDU’s conservation programming has saved the consuming public more money than it has cost,” said Travis Kavulla, R-Great Falls and vice-chairman of the PSC.

Several commissioners voiced disagreement about the utility’s involvement in energy efficiency programming, including Tony O’Donnell, R-Billings.

“These are investments best left to the judgment of individual consumers,” O'Donnell said. “If they are cost-effective, there is nothing stopping a consumer from purchasing them.”

All commissioners voiced support for a more comprehensive re-evaluation of the program, and the PSC’s order directs MDU to file in two years to readdress the commission’s concerns.

MDU’s program began in 2006, back when natural gas was in short supply.

Today, more efficient, cost-effective drilling and completion techniques have led to an increase in gas production and lower prices for consumers.