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MPPI missing in action

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A broad swath of Montana interests—including seniors, laborers, conservationists, low-income residents and consumers—will all have proxies asking questions and demanding documents about the proposed sale of NorthWestern Energy to Australia’s Babcock and Brown Infrastructure.

Nearly a dozen groups—including AARP Montana, Human Resource Council District XI, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local #44, Natural Resources Defense Council and Montana Consumer Counsel—have been recognized as “interveners” in the proceeding, which gives them the ability to request and scrutinize information about the deal.

On Tuesday, July 18, the state Public Service Commission, which will approve or reject the deal, tentatively agreed to a schedule that includes a mid-March 2007 hearing, to be followed by a decision several weeks later. In the meantime, the PSC and interveners have begun the discovery process.

One potential intervener—South Dakota Public Power Inc., an entity involved in a Montana-led effort to buy NorthWestern to create a public utility—has yet to be included or excluded from the process. PSC Chairman Greg Jergeson says NorthWestern has filed an objection to South Dakota Public Power’s involvement that the commission has yet to evaluate.

Notably absent from the list of intimately interested parties is Montana Public Power Inc, (MPPI), the five-city coalition that aggressively courted NorthWestern over the last year, which both Jergeson and Commissioner Brad Molnar noted as surprising. Alec Hansen, MPPI secretary, says the group didn’t even discuss intervening at its mid-June meeting. While MPPI hasn’t disbanded, Hansen says, it has not taken any action since settling its books after its failed bid.

Bob Nelson, Montana Consumer Counsel, says NorthWestern’s application generally didn’t have enough detail about the proposed corporate structure or financing to convince him that Montana consumers would be unharmed, let alone helped, by the sale.

In its application, NorthWestern had requested a decision on the sale be made before Christmas, a hasty timeline that both the PSC and Nelson say would have been neither viable nor wise, given the stakes.

“Their vision of the process was a lot quicker and less in-depth than the way we look at it,” Nelson says.

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