By Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette

As three generations of utility regulators warned state lawmakers against a bill saddling consumers with a Colstrip Power Plant debt, NorthWestern Energy said the generator would shutter in four years without it.

Senate Bill 379 drew opposition from the Public Service Commissioners dating back to the 1980s, each warning the Senate Energy Committee on Tuesday that the bill was placing onto the customers of NorthWestern Energy all financial risks associated with the troubled coal-fired power plant. The utility commission’s staff had earlier placed the cost burdens to customers in excess of $1 billion for each of the power plant’s two surviving units.

“If you’re trying to shift all the risks to a captive set of customers as a monopoly, that’s more in keeping with Venezuela than free market capitalism in the United States. And if I seem a little bit irritated, it’s because I am at this point,” said James Brown, current Montana Public Service Commission chairman.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls, opened the hearing by questioning the professionalism of the PSC staff, who he said had it out for his legislation. Brown had heard enough.

“I’ve been around this institution long enough to know that if the sponsor is going to attack the staff of an agency as part of his advocacy of his legislation, then perhaps the underlying bill is problematic. I take great umbrage and exception to the sponsor’s attack of the PSC’s staff and their professionalism. And I take great umbrage at the assertion that members of the PSC, such as myself, don’t make reasoned informed decisions.”

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