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The Power of the PUC
An Unelected Body
Photo by Brad Weaver on Unsplash
ACTION ITEM - Does your town have a committee focusing on the transmission line project? If so, please email me your town and a contact person for your committee so we have a consolidated list of contacts.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is an appointed body whose core function is to ‘ensure that Maine citizens have access to safe and reliable utility services at rates that are just and reasonable for customers and public utilities, while also helping achieve reductions in state greenhouse gas emissions.’ (https://www.maine.gov/mpuc/) Among other duties, they regulate electric transmission and distribution utilities. They adjudicate cases before them, standing as three judges. The Commission establishes rates, grants utility operating authority, regulates utility service standards and monitors utility operations for safety and reliability.
The PUC was created by the legislature in 1913 - 100 years ago - and they have been giving extraordinary powers by the state of Maine.
The legislature directs the PUC to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a project, and then the entire process is overseen by this unelected body. The legislature no longer has any legal oversight once a project is approved.
The PUC has the authority to recognize a company as a public utility in Maine. As a public utility, a company can petition Maine PUC for eminent domain rights. The PUC has the authority to force landowners to forfeit their property for the completion of a project that the PUC created. (Section 4 at https://legislature.maine.gov/legis/statutes/35-A/title35-Asec3136.html)
If a member of the public wants to file a complaint against a utility the complaint is filed with the PUC and the PUC is the body to make a determination on the case. But can the public file a complaint against the PUC? We’re still looking into that.
The PUC can exempt a utility from following town ordinances. (Section 4 at https://legislature.maine.gov/statutes/30-A/title30-Asec4352.html)
The PUC has the power and authority to request a third party validation of any data presented to them, and they have the power and authority to choose not to validate the information. This will be important as LS Power submits their CPCN request to the Maine PUC along with the Daymark study that LS Power cosponsored.
There are currently three commissioners - Philip Bartlett II, Patrick Scully, and Carolyn Gilbert. There is also a large staff of accountants, engineers, lawyers, financial analysts, consumer specialists, and administrative and support staff. And they all work together with the goal of making sure Maine citizens have access to safe and reliable utility services at rates that are just and reasonable for ratepayers and utilities.
Carolyn Gilbert is the newest commissioner, nominated in March and appointed in May of this year by Governer Mills. Prior to her appoinment, Ms. Gilbert was a managing consultant at Daymark Energy Advisors. Interestingly enough, Daymark Energy Advisors produced the study that evaluated the Aroostook Gateway Project and determined a net ratepayer benefit. Daymark Energy Advisors was paid by LS Power and Longroad Energy, so there is bias in the study toward the projects. We hope that Ms. Gilbert will recuse herself from the LS Power and Longroad Energy CPCN process as there is a conflict of interest for her to attempt an unbiased evaluation of a study created by her prior employer. There is also a conflict of interest for her to make a decision on a petition by a company who was a sponsor of her prior employer. We also expect the PUC to request a third party study to validate the findings of the Daymark Study, and in fact, LS Power has suggested the same during public meetings.
On the plus side, the PUC process allows for public input and proceedings are public, as are many of the documents the PUC uses to determine cases before them. But the more we learn about the powers of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the more we realize that this regulating body needs regulation.
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