David and Goliath, 2002 

I-145 pits energy giants against average Montanans

A little over a year ago I wrote a column titled “Power to the People.” The 2001 Legislature had just reached its midpoint, the Butte mines were shut down because they could not afford the skyrocketing “free market” price of Montana’s once-cheap and abundant electricity, and no solution to the huge problems caused by electricity deregulation was in sight. “Power to the People” suggested that the Legislature might want to consider buying back the hydroelectric dams that Montana Power Company (MPC) sold to Pennsylvania Power and Light (PPL) to regain control of our water and energy resources. Unfortunately, the corporate political power that brought us deregulation in the first place was still firmly in charge of both the governor’s office and the Republican majorities, and the idea was squashed. One year later, MPC no longer exists, the mines are still shut down, and Montanans face a daunting energy future as the rate caps for residential and small consumers expire. Against this background, a David and Goliath battle is shaping up between the out-of-state energy conglomerates who now own these resources and Montanans who seek to regain control of our dams, energy, and water resources by putting I-145 on the ballot through the citizen initiative process.

Recent filings with the Commissioner of Political Practices pretty much tell the story. Both PPL and Avista (the former Washington Water Power) have formed PACs to oppose I-145. PPL’s PAC is called “The Incidental Committee to Oppose Dams Initiative.” While not a particularly catchy name, this PAC is at least straightforward about its intentions. Avista’s PAC, on the other hand, is called the “Avista Clark Fork Project Protection Committee”—a name that easily could have been identified with, say, those who wanted to remove the Milltown Dam, restore mining-damaged tributaries, or any of the other myriad projects associated with the Clark Fork Superfund site. But of course, Avista’s PAC has no such purpose in mind. It’s there to protect but one Clark Fork “project,” and that’s Avista’s ownership of the Noxon dam. It’s the numbers, however, not the names, which truly provide dimension to this showdown. PPL’s PAC shows that it didn’t raise a dime between April 2001 and March 3, 2002. On the spending side of the equation, however, PPL has been six-figure busy with $358,681 already spent against an initiative that has yet to even qualify for the ballot. What, you might ask, could they have spent so much money on? The answer is simple: PPL is spending big bucks on lawyers and consultants. Thus far, $309,973 went to Woodward & McDowell, a California political consulting and PR firm that has “educated the public” on behalf of the Tobacco Institute, fought against California propositions to acquire ancient forests and tighten pollution laws, and took home about $400,000 as consultants against I-122, the Clean Water Initiative, right here in good old Montana. If you really want to find out what these folks do, you’ll have to spend more than a little time tracking them down on the Internet, where the name drags up thousands of hits. But let’s put it this way: This is a very competent, very successful, very practiced consulting firm that knows the ebb and flow of political campaigns as well as any in the nation.

So what has Woodward & McDowell been up to on behalf of PPL to earn six figures already? Well, the campaign reports say they have been doing surveys and are trying to determine the general perception of PPL. Combined with the $24,362 PPL spent on a New York City law firm to develop legal arguments against I-145, one might say they are laying the groundwork for an all-out effort to crush the initiative. And they are not alone. Avista has spent $17,791 so far on a Spokane law firm and Gard and Gerber, a Portland public relations firm. Nor is it likely that these two companies will run out of money for their Montana fight. PPL’s 2001 annual report lists revenues of $5.725 billion (yes, billion), while Avista clocks its 2001 revenues at $6 billion. Combined, in one year these two corporations pulled in about five times the total annual budget to run the state of Montana.

It’s not tough to figure out who the Goliaths are. But the David? So far the David in this battle is a totally-volunteer organization called Dam Cheap Power (www.damcheappower.com). This band of citizens, mostly by donating their own money, has raised a grand total of $1,170 and garnered $1,292 of in-kind contributions from Missoula-based MontPIRG, (the Montana Public Interest Research Group) for copying initiatives, gathering signatures, and renting a post office box. No high-end PR firms, no surveys, no ads.

The David in this fight is vastly outnumbered, outspent, and out-resourced. Except for a couple of things: Montanans might be a lot tougher and smarter than Goliath thinks. We know about water rights—and what it means to lose them. We are finding out, to our shock and dismay, about energy costs and the conglomerates that control them—think Enron and the California market manipulation. We know about what happens when huge corporations take what they want and walk away. Our landscape is littered with poisoned rivers, abandoned mines, eroding clearcuts, and toxic dumps that were left behind when, as old Francis Bardanouve used to say, “They got the gold and we got the shaft.” And Montanans know what it means to fight to protect the resources we cherish.

No one doubts that this battle is unfair, but then, that’s the nature of David and Goliath. In the end, however, it will serve Montanans well to remember that David won by virtue of a single, well-placed stone. Find your stones fellow Montanans. Keep them close to hand. If Montana is ever to break the energy collar Governor Racicot and the ’97 Legislature clamped to our necks, I suspect we will need every single one.

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