Witnesses Monday urged the Utah Public Service Commission to carefully study the proposed merger of Utah Power & Light Co. and PacifiCorp, fearing that Utah coal mines might be closed and regulatory authority shifted into federal hands.
James L. Barker Jr., representing a consumer group, said he is concerned that regulatory authority over a multistate utility may shift from Utah's PSC to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission."Regulatory authority should be maintained in the state. It should represent the public interest and assets of the company," said Barker.
He said the assets and operations of the company could come under federal control as a result of the merger.
He also warned the commission to be wary of the utilities' proposal, adding that UP&L has "snowed' the PSC in earlier proposals.
Barker was among those testifying during the second week of the 15-day hearing on the merger. Monday was set aside as a day for the public to testify on the merger hearings.
Merging UP&L and PacifiCorp would create one of the largest utilities in the West, serving more than 1 million customers in seven states, and Utah is the last jurisdiction where hearings have been held.
Since announcing their intended marriage last August, officials from UP&L and PacifiCorp have presented their case before regulators in Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commissioners in Wyoming, Idaho and California have approved the merger.
Speaking before the PSC Monday, Rep. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, whose district includes parts of Carbon, Emery and Grand counties, expressed his conditional support for the planned merger.
However, he said the PSC should make sure that the Hunter and Huntington coal mines in his district are not adversely affected by the merger.
He said he is worried that the merger would close down the production in several mines, including those two.
"We cannot jeopardize the economy of these counties at the price of a small rate level decrease. We cannot suffer any more increases in layoffs," he said.
He said the unemployment level in those counties is already 20 percent, including weekend layoffs of 100 people at the Amax-owned Castle Gate coal mine.
Sen. Paul Rogers, R-Orem, who represents seven communities in northeast Utah County, said he supports the planned merger because of the projected rate decrease.
In doing so, he also expressed concern that the PSC continue to regulate the super-utility. "Although there might be a short-term impact on the Utah economy, I believe this is offset by the long-term benefit to Utah ratepayers," he said.
Rogers said Utah ratepayers will benefit because economies of scale will be increased, and the sharing of power between the Northwest and Utah will decrease rates.
He presented a stack of letters from 15 other legislators in support of the planned merger.