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Regulation in Oregon 101: What Does CUB’s Regulatory Program Actually Do?
We blogged a lot last year about some of the big cases that CUB was working on—general rate cases for Idaho Power, Pacific Power, and NW Natural. In looking back, we realized that we never fully explained what a “general rate case” is, and that got us thinking that this might be a good time to explain to folks all the different types of cases (we call them “dockets”) that CUB regularly works on. As you might imagine, CUB works on a lot of different types of dockets, and so we’ve decided to answer the question—what does CUB’s regulatory program actually do?—in a three part Regulation 101 series.
Before we dive in, we should note that the types of cases discussed below apply only to Oregon’s six investor-owned energy utilities (IOUs) that are regulated by the Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC)—Avista, Cascade Natural Gas, Idaho Power Company, NW Natural, Pacific Power, and Portland General Electric. People´s utility districts, cooperatives, and municipally-owned utilities set their own rates and are not regulated by the OPUC. IOUs must all file rate schedules and service schedules, called tariffs, with the OPUC. These tariffs contain the terms under which the IOUs provide service. Tariffs are binding, and the utilities are not permitted to charge Oregon customers rates other than those on file with the OPUC. This means that whenever an IOU wants to change a rate or service, it has to first file the change with the OPUC and prove that the change is needed.
Generally speaking, the OPUC has 30 days from the date of the IOU’s filing to take action, or the filing will automatically go into effect. Unless the impact of the filing is small and does not seek a waiver of a rule or request to change implementation of current policy, the filing will normally result in the OPUC suspending the tariff and ordering an investigation. These are the cases in which CUB and the other “intervenors” may get involved on behalf of their respective customer groups. As you know, CUB represents the residential ratepayers of the IOUs. Very large commercial customers, like Kroger, may represent themselves independently; other large industrial customers may appear through trade organizations such as the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities (ICNU) for electric cases and the Northwest Industrial Gas Users (NWIGU) for gas cases. In addition to CUB, various other non-profits with energy policy in their respective mission statements may also appear. These groups include Renewable Northwest Project (RNP), the Northwest Energy Coalition (NWEC), the Sierra Club, and Community Action Partnership of Oregon (CAPO).
CUB reviews the IOU’s filings and, when appropriate, files a Notice of Intervention to appear on behalf of Oregon’s residential customers. The next step is to make sure that CUB understands, in detail, what the IOU is asking the Commission to do and the impact that its request would have on residential ratepayers. This is generally accomplished through “discovery.” Discovery is a period of time when we get to ask the Company involved to produce documents that we think will be relevant to the case. These documents can include written explanations and electronic spreadsheets. If we find information in those documents that is relevant to the case we are making against the utility, we can use that information in the testimony that our experts file with the Commission. That information then becomes part of the record that the Administrative Law Judge and Commissioners review in making their decisions.
Some dockets are more formal, courtroom-style cases where you would see testimony submitted by expert witnesses, under oath, that is subject to cross-examination during a hearing. Organizations may have internal expert witnesses on their staff (like Bob, Gordon, and Nadine for CUB) or hire outside expert witnesses who make their living being experts in a particular area (CUB sometimes hires outside experts, too). Legal briefs are also a part of these types of dockets.
Dockets can, however, be more informal. These dockets tend to be policy related dockets. In these cases, the participating parties file unsworn comments that state their respective positions. Though these dockets are more informal, the participating parties (Commission Staff, intervenors, and the Company) may still conduct discovery so that the intervenors, like CUB, can have access to the information necessary to support their respective positions.
In both formal and informal cases, an administrative law judge presides over the proceedings and then the Commissioners decide the cases based on the evidence in the record.
We’ll talk more specifics about the actual types of cases that we work on in the second and third installments of this blog series. If we have failed to answer any of your questions, please do not hesitate to contact us through our website. The support of our members is essential, so please donate to CUB if you can.