Steep learning curve ahead for new PUC commissioner

Sen. Betsy Wergin
Sen. Betsy Wergin

As Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration begins to search for “the very best qualified” candidates for top jobs in the Office of Energy Security, one of the top decision-making posts at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) quietly went to a state senator with no personal or legislative background or other qualifications in energy or regulatory affairs and who even has doubts about climate change. 

When she takes over as one of five full-time and high-profile PUC commissioners, Sen. Betsy Wergin, R-Princeton, faces a tangle of complex issues involving regulated utilities in Minnesota. 

“I know,” Wergin said. “I’ve got a lot of reading to do.”

Few issues before the PUC are more controversial than whether to certify transmission lines to carry power into Minnesota from the proposed Big Stone II coal-burning power plant perched on the state’s western border in Millbank, S.D. A consortium of five utilities led by Otter Tail Power of Fergus Falls, Minn., backs the $1.5 billion, 500-megawatt plant.

Recommendation to deny need certificate
The Big Stone II plant was subjected to years-long hearings by two administrative law judges who recommended in May that a certificate of need be denied because the state’s energy needs can be better met with renewable energy and conservation, and because plant backers underestimated the future cost of emitting carbon gases linked to climate change. 

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Commerce Department also recommended that the need certificate be denied. 

Pawlenty has variously said that climate-change effects could be curtailed by reducing carbon emissions from sources like coal-burning power plants, and that reductions could be accomplished by, among other means, a free-market “cap and trade” system that would effectively raise the cost of emitting carbon. 

Big Stone II would annually emit 5 million tons of carbon, and that would complicate state efforts to meet legally mandated carbon-reduction targets of 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2015, 30 percent below by 2030, and 80 percent below by 2050.

A closely watched decision
The PUC decision on Big Stone II is being closely watched as a test of where Minnesota will go in dealing with climate-change issues. For his part, Pawlenty has given a number of national speeches urging states to take “bold initiatives” to address climate change. 

Which gets back to Wergin. 

In April, she joined other Republican legislators in co-hosting a seminar featuring the Heartland Institute of Chicago, a group that doubts climate change is occurring and thinks in any event that carbon isn’t the cause. This is sharply at variance with the prevailing scientific view, most prominently by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Wergin said the seminar was informational, and that it also presented Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which won a number of awards and helped Gore win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. 

Asked if she accepted that climate change exists, Wergin said there are “two sides to the issue.” 

Asked if she accepted that carbon gases are linked to climate change, Wergin said “that’s being debated by scientists.” 

Supported Next Gen Act
Wergin supported the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act, whose key feature is the carbon-reduction mandate that’s among the nation’s most aggressive. It passed by a lopsided, bipartisan majority last year, after years of political struggle. 

When asked about the Next Gen vote, Wergin said she supported climate-change studies.  But when told that the legislation mandated carbon reduction, she initially said she wasn’t aware of that (she later said that the bill “contained a lot of things”).

Asked whether she would apply the state’s carbon-reduction mandates to the Big Stone II decision, Wergin said she wouldn’t “prejudge the issue.”   

Wergin was appointed to the position, which pays $88,500 annually, to fill out the 18 months remaining on the six-year term of LeRoy Koppendrayer, who retired. 

Wergin is Koppendrayer’s sister. 

“It seems to me that the only qualification she has for the job is that she’s related to Koppendrayer,” said Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, who chairs the House Energy Policy and Finance Division. 

Koppendrayer indicated support for certificate

At a PUC meeting in June, Koppendrayer indicated he’d support the certificate of need for the Big Stone II power lines. The other PUC commissioner indicating support was David Boyd, whom Pawlenty has named PUC chair. 

Two other commissioners, Phyllis Reha and Tom Pugh, said they’d oppose the certificate, and the commission’s newest member, Dennis O’Brien, asked for more study. The PUC agreed with O’Brien and will examine the issue some more before voting. 

In announcing Wergin’s appointment, Pawlenty said, “Betsy has a tremendous combination of small-business and public-policy experience as well as extensive community involvement. This perspective will be a great benefit to her on the PUC.”

Wergin currently lists no occupation other than legislator. In the past she owned and operated a dry cleaner and a mail-order firm selling knitting supplies and yarn, and she served as assistant to the director of a nonprofit nursing-home group. She’s a former Sherburne County commissioner and belongs to several local chambers of commerce in her district. 

Meanwhile, the search continues to replace Edward Garvey, who unexpectedly resigned July 15 as deputy commerce commissioner and director of the Office of Energy Security.  Earlier, the No. 2 man in the office, state government veteran Michael Bull, resigned to take a policy job with a wind energy group.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/25/2008 - 04:54 pm.

    Perhaps ALL appointments to commissions that require expertise in a specialized area should be approved by the legislature.

    Meanwhile, I recommend that Senator Wergin include in the reading she plans to do the Energy section at the web site for Public Citizen (www.citizen.org).

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