Duke Energys most recent move to delay filing a rate case with the N.C. Utilities Commission will avoid the utility having two complex cases before the commission simultaneously.
Duke says its move is designed to ease the commissions workload. The commission is expected to hold rate hearings for Progress Energy about the time that Duke would file its rate case in February or March.
Were sensitive to the amount of work involved for our company and certainly for the commission and staff in having two rate cases filed in close succession, Duke spokesman Mike Hughes said.
But some advocacy groups say Duke may be buying time for the states new governor to alter the makeup of the commission. Republican Pat McCrory has emerged as the gubernatorial front-runner. McCrory is a former mayor of Charlotte and also a 29-year veteran employee of Duke Energy.
McCrory spokesman Ricky Diaz referred questions about the candidates policy on such nominations to the campaign website. The site says McCrory will want nominees who understand the private sector, fight onerous regulations and make government more responsive to business.
If McCrory were to be elected in November, he would immediately have a vacancy to fill on the Utilities Commission, which regulates rates and service for utility companies. Two more commission vacancies come open July 1, allowing the new governor to handpick three of the seven commissioners and a chairman within eight months of his election. Governors nominate utilities commissioners for six-year terms.
This ought to raise some serious eyebrows, said Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress North Carolina Action, a social activist group in Raleigh. This scenario is a potential conflict of interest that will affect voters and rate payers.
Hughes said the election was not a factor in the delay. It has absolutely nothing to do with anyones expectation for the result of the approaching election, he said.
Duke has 1.9 million customers in the state. The company originally had planned to ask for a rate increase this past summer but delayed it to December. After consultation with the Public Staff, the states consumer advocacy agency, Duke agreed to make the rate filing in the first quarter of 2012. Public hearings are not likely to get under way until after the middle of the year.
Looming in the background is the commissions ongoing probe of Dukes firing of CEO Bill Johnson in July, just hours after completing its merger with Progress. The commission had approved the $32 billion deal with the understanding that Johnson would be CEO, and is now investigating whether Duke deliberately misled shareholders, customers and public officials.
The term of Utilities Commission Chairman Ed Finley Jr. expires June 30. If he steps down as chairman, Finley would remain on the panel through 2019. Finley has been an outspoken critic of Dukes handling of its merger with Progress.
The states new governor also will have another vacancy to fill: director of the Public Staff. Robert Gruber expects to retire when his term expires June 30.
Its obvious to anybody that since weve had differences with (Duke CEO) Jim Rogers, if he gets new commissioners, hes likely to get more favorable treatment, Gruber said.