NorthWestern Energy is at it again. This time, it is trying to sidestep a requirement for its shareholders to pay $2.5 million for low income and tribal energy assistance programs. Prior to its repeal in the 2021 Legislative Session, the Montana Renewable Energy Standard had a provision that required NorthWestern Energy to purchase electricity from small community renewable energy projects. The purpose of this provision of law was to ensure that the benefits that flow from the development of renewable energy projects were distributed across the state and not limited to rural areas of Eastern Montana.
But NorthWestern Energy never complied. Instead, it routinely requested and received waivers from the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) from having to comply with the law. In 2015 and 2016, it requested waivers and did not even bother to try to justify its failure to comply with the law. The PSC granted the waiver and MEIC, represented by Jenny Harbine with Earthjustice, challenged the decision in state district court.
In 2019, the court overturned the PSC’s decision. It found that the PSC had acted arbitrarily when it concluded that NorthWestern made reasonable efforts to comply. NorthWestern convinced the 2021 Legislature to retroactively eliminate that requirement, but once again a court ruled in MEIC’s favor and said that NorthWestern’s obligation to pay a $2.5 million penalty remained despite NorthWestern’s and the Legislature’s new law.
Now, NorthWestern is asking the Montana Supreme Court to eliminate its obligation to pay for its bad behavior. Let’s hope the Supreme Court holds NorthWestern accountable to fund these important programs.
This article was published in the September 2022 issue of Down To Earth.