More than 150,000 pages of filings, nine intervening parties and the sheer size—$2.2 billion—of NorthWestern Energy’s proposed sale to Australia’s Babcock & Brown Infrastructure (BBI) all hint at the importance of the decision Montana officials face as they launch several days of public hearings on the deal March 14.
But as a smattering of locals told some of the deal’s key players at a March 8 meeting in Missoula, the proposed sale’s most important aspect is what it could mean for the stability of Montana’s largest provider of gas and electricity.
Stacy Rye, a member of Missoula’s City Council, told Public Service Commission (PSC) Vice-Chairman Doug Mood and representatives from NorthWestern and BBI that she questions the Australian company’s commitment to Montana interests and hopes the PSC heeds the Montana Consumer Counsel’s warning that the sale may jeopardize Montana ratepayers.
“Our future is at stake here, and I would personally like a utility that had a Montana focus,” Rye said.
BBI’s Adriaan Van Jaarsveldt attempted to soothe concerns by assuring attendees the new owners would be committed to long-term investment and won’t change the utility’s management. He disputed the Consumer Counsel’s conclusions and argued past problems caused by utility deregulation and NorthWestern’s subsequent bankruptcy shouldn’t color the future, saying: “All I can say is our intentions are good in coming to purchase NorthWestern. One of the difficulties in this is a tendency to hold us culpable for the sins of the past.”
But Montanans would do well, said Rye, to attend to past lessons in hopes of avoiding more painful ones in the future. She says people who care about these issues may be overwhelmed by the sheer size and complexity of this deal but urged them nonetheless to file their comments with the PSC, which will accept public comment through March 31.
The commission’s approval or denial of the deal should come in May, said Mood, who promised to carefully examine whether the sale would “help or hinder” Montana interests and closed the hearing by saying: “That has to be protected no matter what, and certainly that’s my pledge to you.”