Politically Thinking: Energy oversight should be independent

Opponents of several utility projects with far-reaching implications — wind turbines in the Northeast Kingdom, the merger of Green Mountain Power and CVPS, and the Addison Natural Gas Project — have criticized the Department of Public Service’s role in the review of those projects. Although the substantive objections to these projects are different, a common complaint is that the DPS has not served as an independent representative of local and statewide public concerns to the Public Service Board, the quasi-judicial body that is the decision-maker on major utility matters.
Concerns about the DPS have been raised well before the recent controversies. For example, when Jim Douglas was governor, some critics of Vermont Yankee’s continued operation claimed that the DPS was too close to Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s owner, to be an effective advocate for public concerns about the nuclear plant.
I would argue that the DPS generally follows the direction of the governor in making submissions to the Public Service Board in contested utility matters. The commissioner of the DPS is appointed by the governor, and is an important member of the administration. For most of his time in office, Douglas was generally supportive of Vermont Yankee, and the DPS reflected that point of view. Similarly, Peter Shumlin has been a strong supporter of projects proposed by the Gaz Metro group of companies, and it is no surprise that his administration’s DPS supports those projects before the PSB.
The Department of Public Service has an important role to play in energy planning and recommending large-scale energy policy, and it is appropriate that these activities be carried out by an agency that is responsible to the governor. However, I see the question of whether the public advocacy role should be in the hands of DPS, or should instead be in a more independent organization, to be open for discussion, especially after looking at the ways in which the public advocacy function is performed in other states.
Vermont is among a minority of states nationally, and is the only state in New England, in which representing the public interest before the state utility commission is in the hands of an agency directly responsible to the governor. The more common practice is to have the public advocacy role in the hands of the attorney general’s office, or in a completely independent state agency. Both of these models are used elsewhere in New England.
In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the attorney general is responsible for representing the interests of ratepayers and citizens before the utility regulatory commissions. In both of those states, as in Vermont, the attorney general is elected separately from the governor. This structure allows the office that serves as an advocate for citizen views to be separate from the energy planning function that is part of the governor’s administration.
In Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire, independent agencies are charged by statute with representing the public before the utilities commissions. These agencies are called the Consumer Counsel (Connecticut), the Public Advocate (Maine), and the Consumer Advocate (New Hampshire). In all three of these states, the heads of these agencies are appointed for four- or five-year terms that do not coincide with the governor’s term. This structure provides for the greatest independence of the public advocacy function from the executive branch.
Placing the public advocacy function in either the attorney general’s office or an independent agency would be an improvement on the current structure of Vermont state government. The Legislature should look at practices in other New England states and seriously consider moving this responsibility out of the Department of Public Service.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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