MISSOULA — The two women vying to be the next Montana Public Service Commissioner in Western Montana are both rallying around themes like "integrity" and professional experience in the final campaign stretch.
The differences become more apparent when the conversation turns to points like climate change, and future energy development.
Republican State Senator Jennifer Fielder and Democrat Monica Tranel have been locked in an intense campaign since the Primary votes were final.
The contest pits a lawmaker known for her strong right views against a lawyer with a track record of fighting rate cases for Montana consumers. Both use the word "independent" in their descriptions.
But differences emerge the deeper you look. During an online debate for Missoula's City Club, the pair sparred over what they knew about the commission on issues like "net metering", and consumer choice.
"I’d like to see more options available to everybody, and you know that's a bit of a threat to the large companies and big monopolies,” Fielder said. “But when you allow free market principles to work, you know and there actually is competition that actually is what gets people off the dime." “Get companies off the dime and get them performing better.”
"That fundamentally demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the regulatory paradigm is,” Tranel said. “So, the reason that we have a Commission is to regulate these natural monopolies. And we're not going to allow Northwestern Electric, the co-ops, MDU, use several different providers to deliver electricity across one line,” she continued. “That's just not the way it works.”
There's also a clash over climate change. Tranel says the PSC has a "moral imperative and market opportunity", to pursue "green energy", driven by Montana's geography.
“This is an incredibly exciting time for everyone and all of us in Montana should be demanding that we stand at the lead of this transition because we have the resources to do it,” Tranel said.
But while Tranel faults Republican commissioners for raising rates and not embracing newer energy technologies, Fielder believes there's still life left in legacy energy sources.
“I don't think it would be a good idea to follow some of the models that, you know, blindly follow these models with the zealousness for wind or solar,” Fielder said. "We've got to be realistic about it and make sure that people can have the power that they need and want when they need it when they want it to a price they can afford. And I believe green energy can play an important role in that.”
The District 4 PSC commissioner represents the western edge of Montana, from Lincoln County in the north to the Bitterroot.