MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
The Montana Public Service Commission said Tuesday it will join a lawsuit alleging the federal government made mistakes when it ruled that PPL Montana does not have monopoly power in Montana. Consumer advocates, and members of the PSC, have argued that PPL Montana holds a virtual monopoly over electricity production in the state. They say it is the single largest cause for higher rates seen in the state. PPL Montana successfully argued before the Washington D. C. -based Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it does not hold a monopoly, allowing it to sell electricity at unregulated market rates rather than regulated rates. FERC reiterated its ruling last month. But the PSC says it wants to join the Montana Consumer Counsel's plans to fight that decision. The Consumer Counsel filed its case last week in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Commissioners said the PSC could make the case stronger simply be adding its name to the appeal. The consumer counsel advocates for Montana ratepayers, while the PSC regulates utilities in the interest of the state as a whole. Commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to pursue the legal appeal, saying that PPL Montana's hold on electricity is the biggest issue facing Montana in the wake of deregulation that splintered the old Montana Power Co. "I can't imagine anything that is more important than this particular issue," said Commissioner Doug Mood, a Republican. Commissioner Ken Toole, a Democrat, said PPL Montana's power over prices goes to "the core of the problem we have seen in Montana with rates." PSC Chairman Greg Jergeson Said he will be happy to "disabuse" PPL Montana of the notion that the case was finalized with last month's FERC decision. PPL Montana is the state's largest power generator and owns the bulk of the dams and power plants once operated by Montana Power. It sells electricity to NorthWestern Energy, which runs the utility that sells power directly to ratepayers. PPL Montana maintains that there is healthy competition in Montana for electricity. "PPL's position that FERC's decision on the 27th of July that there is healthy and robust competition in Montana holds t r u e to d ay, " s a i d Ma r k Lambrecht, manger of regulatory affairs for PPL. "The PSC's decision to file for judicial review will not change that fact." The consumer counsel said a ruling finding that PPL has monopoly power in Montana would immediately lower rates for customers. "It's obviously very important to NorthWestern customers because the bulk of their power comes from PPL and we feel their charges are excessive," said Bob Nelson, with the Montana Consumer Counsel. "I think it's fair to say that if FERC returned to a more costbased price for the power it would be significantly less than the price NorthWestern customers are paying today."