MPUC Chair’s Nomination for New Job Raises Concerns

Remember the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission Chair who was so torn over the burdens of exercising her authority over the Enbridge 3 pipeline replacement project last summer that she sobbed during the panel’s deliberations?

MPR’s coverage left little to the imagination.

PUC Chair Nancy Lange broke down at one point, grabbing a handful of tissues and expressing how conflicted she was about allowing fossil fuels to cross the state for decades to come.

“How would I feel if I woke up in five years and that line had leaked?” Lange said, referring to the possibility that the old Line 3 would continue operating, despite safety risks, if commissioners denied the proposal to replace it.

Fast forward a few months and Lange has no qualms over pursuing a prime new job in the regulatory world. But she’s stirring up controversy on her way to being nominated to the board of the organization that oversees the region’s electric grid, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO).

A watchdog publication, RTO Insider, reports that MISO’s board has received several complaints over “a sitting commissioner being appointed to the oversight body.” To avoid conflicts of interest, the organization’s rules require new directors from the power sector to wait a year before accepting the job. But there’s no such firewall for government regulators like Lange.

While stakeholders say that Lange’s appointment would not explicitly violate the RTO’s bylaws, they pointed out during an Oct. 24 Advisory Committee conference call that Lange would have made decisions about the grid on behalf of Minnesota customers and utilities up until her election.

While a sitting commissioner is not considered either a member or a user, some sector representatives contend that Lange’s role as a regulator in a state within the MISO footprint warrants further discussion.

When MISO posts the election results on Thursday, Lange is expected to be officially named to the grid’s board and resign from the MPUC. But hard feelings over her path to the position may well lead to changes.

Independent Power Producers sector representative Mark Volpe told RTO Insider that Lange has been “influencing and voting and making decisions” on behalf of MISO members and users in her state. He said although the nomination doesn’t breach the RTO’s bylaws, it “sends up a flare” about “the spirit of the rules and what it means to be independent.” He said the concern was “flagged by a number of IPP sector companies.”

It appears Minnesota’s top utility regulator has her work cut out for her in her new job in more ways than one.