Commissioners: Law allowing utility to hide rate impact unfair
by Amy McCullough
Published: May 19,2010
Tags: Anthony Topazi, Barbour, BGR Group, Bloomberg News, Brandon Presley, Clean Coal Power Initiative, Construction Work in Progress, CWIP, Florida, Gov. Haley Barbour, Griffith & Rogers Inc., Interpublic Group of Companies Inc., Kemper County clean coal plant, Kemper County clean coal project, Kemper County Coal plant, Leonard Bentz, Lynn Posey, Mississippi Business Journal, Mississippi Power Company, Mississippi State Ethics Commission, Orlando Gasification Project, Public Service Commission, Southern Company, The New Republic, Todd Terrell, U.S. Department of Energy
Two out of the three Mississippi Public Service Commissioners think a law that has allowed Mississippi Power Company to hide the rate impacts of its proposed $2.4 billion power plant is wrong.
By law, a utility is allowed to file with the Commission any information it wants to keep confidential.
To uncover the information, a third party must make a request through the Public Records Act. The utility then has 30 days to petition Hinds County Chancery Court to rule in its favor or turn over the documents if the court chooses not to rule in its favor.
The 190,000 customers of Mississippi Power Company have little idea what effect in real dollars the Kemper County clean coal plant would have on their monthly electric bills.
Outside Commission proceedings, MPC has said rates will go up “about a third” whether Kemper is built or a natural gas-fired alternative is used. `
Northern District Commissioner and Chairman Brandon Presley said he plans to file a motion to change the rule so that the Commission will have the authority to allow or disallow a utility to mark information as confidential.
“This rule does nothing but protect the utilities…and to heck with the consumer,” Presley said. “We (the commissioners) are the representatives for the public interest, but if a consumer comes to me and asks me what the addition of this power plant is going to do to his rates, I have to say, ‘I’m sorry. The utility told me I can’t tell you that,’” Presley said.
Likewise, Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz is unhappy with the law.
“Those numbers should be made available to the public,” Bentz has said. “The ratepayers need to know the impacts. When the bills go up, they’re not going to call (company CEO) Anthony Topazi. They’re going to call me … The whole story is not getting told.”
While Presley does not favor the Kemper plant, Bentz did vote for an April 29 order that conditionally approved the project. Bentz’ district comprises most of the citizens who will be paying for the plant if it goes forward.
“It is frustrating. I want to build this plant, but I want everybody to know exactly what is going to happen when we build this plant. I have to look Gulf Coast residents in the eye and tell them I did everything I could to get the information on the table,” Bentz said.
Under the Administrative Procedures Act, the Commission has the authority to amend its own rules, Presley said. A Commissioner can propose a rule change then allow utilities and other intervenors to submit their opinions. The Commissioners take comments into consideration and may then choose to alter a proposed rule before a final vote is taken.
Central District Commissioner Lynn Posey doesn’t have a strong opinion about the law.
Regarding the rule, Posey said, “I don’t know a reason why off the top of my head (rate impacts) would be confidential… I would not object to looking into it.” However, as the law is being interpreted now, the court has the ultimate authority, and “to some extent that’s probably not a bad thing,” he said.
Posey voted along with Bentz for the conditional approval of the Kemper plant.
Click here to read Rule 109 of the Commission’s Rules of Practice and Procedure which addresses confidential filing of documents.
MPC filed a request for a rehearing on the plant, saying the conditions put forth in the April 29 order make the project impossible to finance. The Commission has said it will likely rule on the motion on May 26.
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