A consumer advocate who had questioned whether Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had improperly influenced two state utility regulators in their decisions about energy policy says he is satisfied with the regulators’ responses.
Kansas Corporation Commission members Michael Moffet and Thomas Wright filed affirmations late Thursday afternoon stating they have had no conversations with Topeka-based Westar Energy Inc. or Sebelius regarding energy policy or a pending rate increase hearing. Westar is asking regulators to give preliminary approval to raise rates to recover the costs of developing wind turbines, and Sebelius has advocated for alternative energy.
The attorney for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayers Board, David Springe, had raised concerns about the independence of Moffet and Wright and asked that they either offer clarification or recuse themselves from ruling on Westar’s rate request.
“I think based on these two affirmations, they have removed that appearance of impropriety,” Springe said Friday. “We wanted to make sure they were independent. We are quite pleased that they took the step to show consumers that we’re going to have a fair and independent process.”
A source of the controversy was December 2006 e-mail Westar released as part of its rate case from Chief Executive Officer Jim Haines. That memo to other utility executives said that he and others had met with Sebelius to discuss energy policy, including wind generation. Haines wrote that she indicated utilities would be “fully compensated” for their investment.
Springe’s concern was that the only way Sebelius could make such assurances to utilities would be if she had commitments from its three members that they would approve any rate increase.
In his affirmation, Wright wrote: “The governor sets the goals, but we set the rates.”
Spring agreed that while the governor can give assurances, she needs commitments from regulators to carry them out. “This alleviates the implications that the e-mail alluded to,” Springe said of the affirmations from Wright and Moffet.
A third member, Joseph Harkins, recused himself earlier this year. He was Sebelius’ energy adviser from 2003 to 2006 before being appointed to the KCC in June. Moffet was appointed in 2004 and Wright in May.
Springe said he hoped that Harkins would also submit a broad affirmation of his independence. He said the concerns go beyond the Westar rate case and extend to all debates regarding energy development and conservation.
CURB is challenging Westar’s rate request, which the utility says would add between $2 and $2.50 a month to residential bills. Springe argues that figure could be closer to $4 a month and that Westar should consider purchasing wind power on the wholesale market, rather than owning the turbines outright.
The KCC will hold three days of technical hearings starting Monday. A decision on Westar’s request is expected by Dec. 31.
On the Net:
Kansas Corporation Commission: http://www.kcc.state.ks.us
Westar Energy Inc.: http://www.wr.com
By John Milburn
Associated Press Writer
30 November 2007
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