BISMARCK – Regulation can be a controversial subject, but one department says the purpose of its regulations is to protect people’s property, including the products they buy, as well as the environment.
The Public Service Commission in North Dakota regulates several things, but the four main objectives are utility regulation, coal mine reclamation, siting of energy infrastructure, and measurement testing.
Randy Christmann, one of three public service commissioners, chair of the public service commissioners’ board, said in every state there is a public utility or public service commission.
“One thing that we all have in common is that we regulate monopoly utility companies,” said Christmann. “Such as your natural gas or your electric provider.”
Christmann said in some states including North Dakota, cooperatives such as Verendrye Electric are exempt because they have an elected board, and the voters can regulate their own cooperative.
However, for multi-state companies, the public service commission is elected or appointed by the governor to regulate them.
“They’re a monopoly,” said Christmann. “We work with them. We set their rates. We set service standards and things like that. Verendrye can’t just start stringing lines into downtown Minot that’s served by Excel. That’s Excel’s territory. They were granted that one time. They can safely make huge investments in infrastructure and know that somebody else can’t come in.”
Another job of the PSC, specifically in North Dakota, is overseeing coal mine reclamation, which is the rehabilitation of land after coal mine operations are done using that piece of land.
Christmann said the spoil piles by Garrison and Wilton are a result of coal mining without a reclamation law.
“They dig up all this ground and just leave it,” said Christmann. “It will never be any good for farm land again, and it’s just waste land. Back in the 70s, equipment got better, and states, and ultimately the federal government, started requiring that coal mines reclaim the land.”
In North Dakota, the PSC oversees the reclamation, making sure the coal mine companies meet all the requirements. One requirement is that when the coal miners put the soil back, the water that was flowing there still flows in the same direction.
“If you live 10 miles away and rely on a creek to water your livestock, you shouldn’t be deprived of it because the coal mine came in,” said Christmann. “We make sure that they separate the topsoil and subsoil. They put it back, and we do tests to make sure it’s not packed too heavy for plants to grow. It’s a big process.”
The third main area the PSC covers is the siting of energy infrastructure, such as the CO2 pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Electric Power lines, and dozens of smaller pipelines.
“If they’re really significant pipelines, they have to get a siting certificate from us,” said Christmann. “We’re making sure they do not go within 500 feet of someone’s residence. We will make sure that if they’re crossing a wetland they either bore under it instead of digging that up, or that there’s no other alternative. A lot of things aren’t just cut and dry. Some things are judgment issues, but we’re trying to minimize damage to the environment, to the neighbors and such.”
Christmann added that some of these rules were created by the PSC itself and some are law in the century code.
The fourth main area that the PSC covers is something that Christmann said impacts everyone every single day: ensuring measurements are accurate.
“Think about when you fill your car with gas, or when you go and buy a pound of hamburger at the store, how do you know it’s not 15 ounces? Or 9/10ths a gallon of gas instead of a gallon?” said Christmann. “You can’t tell. Any measuring device, even down to yogurt by the ounce.”
Fortunately not many people willfully scam their customers in North Dakota, according to Christmann. Most of the cases are companies that have an inaccurate scale without realizing it.
“When you’re selling your calves, nowadays you try to sell groups that will fill a semi, so that could be 55,000 pounds,” said Christmann. “Imagine on those transactions, where those calves are two dollars a pound, if that’s wrong by a couple percent? You got a hundred thousand dollars on one transaction.”
The North Dakota PSC doesn’t test every scale in the state, but it ensures that companies measure every scale with an accurate test.
“We test their testers, and certify them,” said Christmann.
However, the PSC department does not get many calls about these violations, and most of the ones it does turn out to be accidental and not a company purposefully trying to scam its customers.
“We’re not trying to be big, overly aggressive regulators,” said Christmann. “We’re trying to make sure people get treated right, too.”
The Public Service Commission in North Dakota began as an authority over the railroad before the railroad was taken over by the federal government. The commission is made up of three state-wide elected commissioners, with 43 employees total. More information can be found here.