Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Xcellent Journalism

The Denver Post's Vincent Carroll should win some sort of journalism award for his series of columns -- here's the latest -- exposing the incestuous, three-way relationship between Xcel Energy, the Ritter Administration and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Spawned of this unholy trinity was a “green energy” bill passed in the last session, HB-1365, which puts the screws to Xcel customers in order to bankroll an unnecessary technology shift for the company, from coal-fired to natural gas-fired plants. This was also a huge gift to natural gas companies, while potentially putting coal producers on the ropes.

It all gives off a strong whiff of conspiracy -- an impression reinforced by the reluctance of key players to document the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. Carroll already has written several columns (including this one) about how Xcel and the PUC are using a new two-tiered rate structure to gouge electricity users with what Mike Rosen has dubbed the "air conditioning tax," in the name of encouraging energy efficiency. Now he’s taking a closer look at the coal-to-gas deal – and doing the public a huge service by staying on the scent.

Cloakroom collaborations between businesses and politicians aren't exactly new, or newsworthy. But what makes the PUC's behind-the-scenes involvement so troubling is the organization’s critical role in implementing legislation that it secretly helped craft. PUC Chairman Ron Binz, a social engineer with a strong green streak, told Carroll the PUC became involved in bill-crafting very late in the game. But any involvement is too much involvement, in my opinion.

The PUC is supposed to serve as an impartial and independent regulatory and rate-setting entity that primarily looks out for the public interest. It shouldn’t be a backroom deal-maker, or involved in drafting legislation it will later have to implement. The collaboration between Ritter, Xcel and the PUC (private environmental groups were also involved) ought to be investigated (and not just by one intrepid columnist), and implementation of the law should be suspended, if that’s possible, until the public knows everything that happened behind the scenes.

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