A questionable petition from a fossil fuel industry front group supporting an increase in monthly fixed charges for Wisconsin electric utility customers has been tossed out by state regulators.
The Public Service Commission on Wednesday ruled the filing by the Consumer Energy Alliance would not be included in the record for either the Madison Gas & Electric or We Energies rate cases.
Houston-based CEA, which has ties to a powerful Washington, D.C. lobbying firm, on Oct. 7 sent the PSC a petition with names of 2,500 electric customers statewide, claiming those consumers “believe changing the current rule will ensure that all ratepayers are treated fairly and electricity bills remain affordable.”
But it’s unclear how many of those customers listed by CEA actually support the proposed changes, which would raise fixed costs for most residential ratepayers. Several customers contacted by The Capital Times said they opposed the rate changes and were not sure how they ended up listed on the petition.
During a public hearing in Milwaukee earlier this month, PSC administrative law judge Michael Newmark asked a representative of CEA how the names were collected and questioned why no actual signatures were included in the filing. Newmark said it was unusual that petitions submitted to the PSC not include actual signatures.
Ryan Scott, director for state affairs and policy for the CEA, explained that the names were gathered both electronically via the CEA’s website and also during telephone interviews.
“We didn't want to print out all the signatures because it would just be an incredible amount of paper,” Scott said under questioning from Newmark.
Instead, Scott provided the PSC a computer disk that was to include those signatures along with a website address with additional information about how the names were collected.
But after reviewing the records provided by CEA, Newmark determined the petition was not admissible in either the MGE or We Energies case, according to PSC spokesman Nathan Conrad.
“(Newmark) reviewed the disk referenced in this testimony as well as the website. The information the person said was supposed to be on the disk or on the website was not there, so there was not the necessary foundation to accept the petition,” Conrad wrote in an email.
The decision not to allow the petition into the record came as several environmental groups opposing the rate changes had called for the PSC to investigate the activities of the CEA.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center, RENEW Wisconsin and The Alliance for Solar Choice asked the commission on Tuesday to determine whether the customers who signed the petition actually signed and if any criminal action took place.
State Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) also weighed in, saying she fears some of her constituents may have been “fraudulently” added to the petition.
"If my constituents were duped, Consumer Energy Alliance should be appropriately punished by the Commission," Taylor said in a statement. "It needs to be clear that these tactics are not welcome in Wisconsin."
Conrad said there is no reason now for the PSC to investigate since the petition has been removed from the record.
MGE and We Energies are both seeking to raise the monthly “fixed charges” for service as a way to spread the costs of maintaining the electric grid — the power plants, pole and wires that keep the system running.
Last year, We Energies was granted a 20 percent increase in fixed charges by the PSC and is now proposing a 75 percent jump in its fixed charge to $16 a month. MGE had initially talked about raising the monthly customer charge to nearly $50 by 2016 and potentially $70 by 2017. It has since backed off that timetable and now proposes raising the fee from $10 to $19 in 2015 and holding off on future hikes pending negotiations with the Citizens Utility Board and other customer groups.
The proposals have been opposed by a host of environmental, consumer and senior groups who say the changes will hit lower income ratepayers hardest while discouraging energy conservation. A decision is expected in both cases by the end of the year.
The CEA, which is bankrolled by large oil and gas companies, has not previously been involved in utility issues in Wisconsin. But the group is well-known in the energy world for crafting public relations campaigns designed to appear as grassroots support — efforts derisively known as “astroturfing” or "greenwashing."
One of its top advisers is lobbyist Michael Whatley, previously a senior policy adviser on George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign and transition team. Whatley also served as chief of staff to former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a former cabinet secretary and the wife of 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.
Both MGE and We Energies have denied any connections to CEA, with MGE last week denouncing the group in a statement.