Archive by Author

New Public Service Commission members face large workload

from the Bismarck Tribune article by Nick Smith

JuliePSCTwo new members of the North Dakota Public Service Commission say their first months on the job have gone smoothly despite a large workload in regulating industries experiencing rapid statewide growth. Commissioners Randy Christmann and Julie Fedorchak agree the workload associated with expanding energy infrastructure has been eye-opening.

“The work, although it’s almost overwhelming with all the activity going on in the state … it does make it more fun and interesting,” Christmann said.

“We’re at a crossroads between growth of industry and protecting personal property rights,” Fedorchak said.Christmann won election to the PSC in November. He filled the seat vacated last summer by former chairman Tony Clark, who moved to Washington, D.C., to join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Christmann’s term expires in 2016.

Christmann, who ranches near Hazen, was first elected to the state Senate in 1994. He also served on the board of West River Telecommunications since 1999.

Fedorchak was appointed to the PSC in December by Gov. Jack Dalrymple. She is up for election to a full six-year term in 2014. Fedorchak replaced Kevin Cramer, who was elected to Congress last fall.

Fedorchak has a journalism degree and served as communications director under Gov. Ed Schafer for five years. She later was state director for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

Smooth transition

Christmann credited PSC Chairman Brian Kalk’s tutelage as well as the assistance of senior staff in helping him settle in.

“He’s (Kalk) still new enough to remember what it’s like to be new,” Christmann said.

Both new members agreed that they can bring fresh perspectives.

“I think we both come at things with that perspective of asking questions on how things are done but also whether it should be (done that way),” Fedorchak said.

Fedorchak also said senior staff had a great impact on her in getting up to speed on the job. One issue in the coming years is the retirement of a number of senior staff, making it important to train younger staff so there isn’t a loss of institutional knowledge, she said.

Protecting land, producers

The growth in the state is a welcome change from the 1990s, Christmann said.

“There was just no hope of finding a job, or at least a good job,” Christmann said. “Now it’s opportunities galore.”

Among Christmann’s portfolios are coal mining, reclamation and abandoned mine lands. He also has licensing for grain dealers and auctioneers, railroads and weights and measures.

Railroads are mainly a federal issue so it tends to be “a fairly quiet portfolio,” he said.

One thing Christmann wants to do is “spend some time on in the very near future” a review of state laws governing larger scaled used for truck stops and grain elevators. He said that would be to check for obsolete rules.

“I think it’s high time we give them another look,” Christmann said.

Another area of focus for Christmann is grain elevator insolvencies.

“As a producer, I didn’t even realize the level of risk the producers are exposed to,” Christmann said.

It’s interesting how much the impacts of PSC decisions intertwine, he said, using the example of a wind farm.

Christmann said commissioners need to consider a myriad of issues, such as the impact on customers’ utility rates. There’s also the question of demand for power and having an adequate backup power source in place.

“What if the wind isn’t blowing?” Christmann said.

He said there also may be the issue of where the backup power is coming from. By being close to the Canadian border, a backup source coming from across the border can become an issue as well.

“It seems so local but … you could be looking at international issues, too,” Christmann said.

Rates, transmission cases

Fedorchak’s portfolios deal with electric rate setting as well as siting of transmission facilities and pipelines.

“These two areas have so much going on right now,” Fedorchak said. “Now we’re seeing a significant number of rate cases.”

Fedorchak said such cases come in cycles historically. A lot of the new rate cases are due to companies passing along costs in addressing new requirements that come from federal environmental regulations.

She said many states have begun to move toward having a percentage of their energy production come from renewable sources.

“It’s a pretty significant change in our electric industry,” Fedorchak said. “The biggest trend right now has been the wind energy projects.”

Fedorchak said wind companies are trying to get approval for wind energy projects this year to take advantage of the federal wind energy tax credit. In January the tax credit was extended through the end of this year.

When she took office, Fedorchak said, she wasn’t aware of the impact the PSC has.

She said the impacts can include having a transmission line, pipeline or wind farm located on a person’s property. Another impact may impact a person or family’s overall budget.

“I enjoy … having an impact on everyday North Dakotans’ lives,” Fedorchak said.

Fedorchak said she approaches commission issues with the mindset of a consumer. She said the impact on customers is important to balance along with the business interests involved.

“(We) find the balance between moving a project forward quickly, efficiently and making sure you’re not cutting any corners,” Fedorchak said. “The PSC has done a really good job of maintaining that balance.”

Working well together

PSC Chairman Brian Kalk said both Christmann and Fedorchak have brought specific skill sets to the commission that already have proven valuable during the recent legislative session.

“Randy’s experience in the Legislature is very beneficial as was Julie’s policy experience,” Kalk said.

Kalk said the PSC’s focus now is on a large slate of projects during the summer months before tackling some long-term strategic planning for the department in the fall. Priorities are to be on policy changes as well as staff.

He said as the two new commissioners continue to gain experience, the PSC should become even more effective.

“The more we work together as a team just makes us stronger,” Kalk said.

Companies that have dealt regularly with the PSC over the years say the transition has been seamless.

“We have found the commissioners very engaged and knowledgeable about the issues. We look forward to continuing working with them,” said Mark Hanson, spokesman for Montana-Dakota Utilities.

Basin Electric Power Cooperative spokesman Daryl Hill said with the level of economic growth and number of projects in the state, the PSC has been up to the task.

“I really admire the new members’ initiative in understanding what goes on with our industry,” Hill said.

Hill pointed to Fedorchak’s day-long tour of Basin facilities earlier this year. He said efforts to learn the industry help build relationships and improve decision-making abilities.

“These guys have a huge task in front of them and they’re very receptive,” Hill said.