Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) A legislative hearing on a citizens’ petition to get the Public Service Commission to consider the social costs of climate change provided an indication of the uphill battle any future rule might face.

On Monday, the Legislative Environmental Quality Council heard Anne Hedges, Montana Environmental Information Center executive director, give an information-only presentation on the petition that 40 groups and businesses sent to the PSC in late February and why, two weeks ago, 11 of those groups asked a Missoula County district court to require that the PSC act on the petition within the mandated 60 days.

After the August ruling in the youth climate lawsuit Held v. Montana, the petitioners asked the PSC to initiate a rulemaking process to incorporate the costs of climate change in decisions involving energy utility projects. Once the petition was submitted, according to Montana law, the PSC had 60 days, or until April 28, to approve or deny the request. Instead, the PSC extended the public comment period until July 1.

Since state law requires all rulemaking to end three months prior to the start of the legislative session, the petitioners say the PSC is dragging the process out so it won’t have time to make a rule before October.

“The PSC’s analysis of electric and gas resources currently is lopsided - it only considers the economic benefit of fossil fuel infrastructure but it doesn’t account for the harm it brings,” Hedges said. “The Public Service Commission had two choices: It could initiate rulemaking or it could deny the petition in writing. Sixty days have passed and the Public Service commission has done nothing.”

Three representatives of other petitioners voiced their reason for backing the petition, including Dr. Robert Byron of the Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate and Wynona Rachel and Michael Hudson of Families for a Livable Planet.

“Electricity generation generates more climate warming gases than almost any industry in our state,” Hudson said. “The cost of climate is real, and I think it should be considered along with all the other costs that the PSC considers.”

They were opposed by the Public Service Commissioner and representatives of NorthWestern Energy, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Billings Chamber of Commerce.

PSC executive director David Sanders said the PSC hadn’t asked any questions during the April 8 public meeting because it was just a listening session. Then when the PSC extended the public comment period to July, it generated 20 questions that it wanted the petitioners to answer before the PSC could do anything, Sanders said.

“We’ve given the petitioners ample opportunity to answer these very important questions about how such a rule would be implemented and other questions relating to the legal framework and environment in which we would have to operate and as yet the petitioners have refused to participate in that process,” Sanders said.

Hedges said the current public comment period is an informal process where there’s no requirement for the PSC to maintain a record. Once the 60 days were over, the PSC should have acted, one way or the other, she said.

“It is not any kind of process. It is questions that could have been asked in that 60 day period when the law allowed the PSC to consider a petition. But we’re outside the bounds of that now,” Hedges said. “We want to work within the bounds of the law. If the PSC wants questions answered, it should initiate the rulemaking process.”

NorthWestern Energy spokesman Alan Olson said the PSC lacks the legal authority to grant the petition, which he said would have the commission enact a carbon tax of $190 per ton.

“The Public Service Commission is an economic not an environmental regulator, and whether or not to impose a carbon tax or other social cost of greenhouse gas calculation on electric customers is a policy decision for this committee or ETIC or the 2025 legislative session,” Olson said.

Olson later emphasized that the “overwhelming majority of NorthWestern Energy’s resources are renewable resources.” But the social cost of carbon would be a cost-adder to a fossil-fuel facility.

“It makes it more expensive than an intermittent resource like wind or solar,” Olson said. “It makes the economics of the intermittent resource more appealing.”

Hedges said the petition was not proposing a carbon tax - it was saying that the PSC should consider the downside or social cost of carbon just like it considers all the beneficial costs of utility projects.

“We’re not saying the public suddenly is going to pay the that social cost of greenhouse gas figure in its utility bills. That would be crazy. What it does do is provide an analytic tool for the PSC to compare various resources, so you have the ability to look at the pros and cons of resources instead of just the pros.”

Billings Chamber of Commerce spokesman Dan Brooks said cost-benefit analysis is a good tool and climate change needs to be addressed. But social cost calculations aren’t appropriate, Brooks said.

Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, said the petition seemed more straight-forward than what the committee’s discussion seemed to project.

“The options are to reject it or make a rule,” Marler said. “I’m hearing folks saying it will result in a carbon tax, or it will result in this or that. But that’s in the purview of the PSC to decide in its rulemaking.”

A few legislators weren’t as considerate in their questioning. Sen. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, said the issue should have come to the Legislature because only the Legislature has authority to write laws. When Hedges started explaining that agencies have the authority to write rules, especially those upholding Constitutional rights, Fielder cut her off.

“Mr. Chair, I think we’re done with this if she’s going to continue down this line. I disagree with the line of reasoning that she has,” Fielder said. “The PSC has gone above and beyond to try to get as much information concerning this rulemaking request, which is based on a disputed theory of climate change.”

Fielder’s wife, Jennifer Fielder, sits on the Public Service Commission.

Other legislators pointed out that, should the PSC choose to make a rule, the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee could object to the rule.