Coloradans criticize rules to keep utility rates and politics separate

Proposed rules to prevent Colorado utility customers from paying for companies’ political activities have been criticized as too weak. Utilities say the kind of detail critics are demanding in reports would be a burden and could drive up overall costs.

Rules proposed to prevent customers from having to cover public utility costs for lobbyists, advertising and political contributions are too weak to prevent potential abuses, critics say.

A public meeting Monday drew speakers who wanted the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to strengthen regulations to implement a 2023 law passed after widespread outrage over high energy bills.

In addition to directing utilities to look to avoid the kind of price increases that would double or triple some Coloradans’ heat bills in early 2023, Senate Bill 23-291 prohibited utilities from adding costs for lobbying, certain advertising, public relations, political contributions and membership contributions to customer rates.

But the bill’s lead sponsors, as well as a dozen Colorado organizations and a national watchdog group, have argued that the proposed regulations are not detailed or specific enough to ensure taxpayers don’t foot part of the bill. They said initial reports from Xcel Energy-Colorado, Black Hills Energy and Atmos Energy reveal “glaring reporting gaps.”

In a filing with the PUC, the bill’s sponsors, members of a select legislative committee, said they support requiring more specific information from utilities “to ensure ratepayers are protected from these costs.”

At Monday’s meeting, Laurie Anderson, a Broomfield City Council member representing Colorado Communities for Climate Action, said she is concerned about “the common practice” of utilities across the country using taxpayer dollars to influence politics.

“Revenue from monthly bills should never be used by a utility to lobby or oppose laws and regulations that would reduce those same bills,” Anderson said.

The companies required to report information about activities targeted by the law all objected to the level of detail sought by environmental and community groups and the Energy and Policy Institute, a national organization focused on utilities and renewable energy. Xcel Energy said in a document that the proposed changes to the PUC’s draft rules would result in administrative burdens, creating little or no benefit and potentially higher costs for rate cases.

Providing even more granular details at the transaction level, including per employee, “would require a manual review process of well over 30,000 transactions per year,” Xcel argued.

Black Hills Energy and Atmos Energy also felt that the burden of requiring more detail would outweigh the benefits. The companies said more time is needed to respond to comments about the rules.

Judge Robert Garvey, who oversaw the public meeting, said there will be an opportunity to submit more comments and perhaps another meeting.

At Monday’s meeting, Garvey questioned speakers about the utilities’ arguments, including that requiring more detailed reports on things they can’t charge customers for could ultimately increase the companies’ overall expenses.

“Should we increase the tariff costs to show that they have done nothing wrong?” Garvey asked. “I don’t think taxpayers want to pay much more for nothing.”

But David Pomerantz, the executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, said his organization offered examples of rules from other states that require utilities to submit more specific data. He said initial reports from Colorado utilities mainly contained aggregated information rather than specific information.

“The central goal is to ensure compliance,” Pomerantz said. “Without specified data it is impossible to verify.”

A 2023 national report from the policy group examined ways to ensure utility customers don’t pay for companies’ political activities or practices that conflict with customers’ interests. The group suggested that the Colorado PUC require utilities to itemize expenditure lists by employee and bill and that companies report on employees, affiliates and third-party vendors who conduct the types of political activities designated by the law.

‘They are asking for a bit of blind trust here. We ask the committee to adopt a trust-but-verify attitude,” Pomerantz said.