Selling NorthWestern 

Power deal steams ahead

Two out of four regulating bodies have now stamped their approval on a $2.2 billion bid from NorthWestern Energy to sell Montana’s largest utility to Australia’s Babcock & Brown Infrastructure.

On Tuesday, Oct. 17, Nebraska’s Public Service Commission issued its unanimous approval of the proposed sale on the heels of an Oct. 10 agreement the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission signed with the company. In that pact, South Dakota pledges to withdraw a protest to the transaction it had filed at the federal level, signaling that final approval from that state may be forthcoming. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Montana’s Public Service Commission (PSC) still are evaluating the deal, and Montana isn’t expected to set a hearing on the proposal until March 2007.

The utility that serves more than 300,000 Montana customers also serves smaller populations in Nebraska and South Dakota, where NorthWestern’s corporate headquarters are located.

Commissioner Bob Raney, with the Montana PSC, says other states’ approvals have no bearing on Montana’s decision.

“Each state operates under completely different laws when it comes to making these approvals,” Raney says. “We’re going to make sure we know everything about this operation and transaction and what that means to our citizens and how we can protect them under the law.”

One of the stipulations of NorthWestern’s agreement with South Dakota is that it will maintain its corporate headquarters in that state at least through 2010, says NorthWestern spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch. The possibility of relocating those headquarters to Montana is an idea the Montana Consumer Counsel and other consumer advocates have touted as a way to better ensure Montanan interests aren’t harmed.

Raney says all factors, including NorthWestern’s agreements with other states’ regulators, are being closely considered by the PSC. The state, the utilities and several other parties—representing environmental, consumer and labor interests—are still in the discovery phase of the process.

“We’re not in a hurry and we’re not dragging our feet—we’re doing the best job we can,” Raney says.

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