Sierra Club: Statement on PSC commissioner conflict of interest hearing

MADISON, WI — The Dane County Circuit Court held a hearing today to hear testimony on former Public Service Commissioner Mike Huebsch’s potential conflict of interest when he voted to approve the proposed $700 million Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC) gas plant in Superior, Wisconsin. These issues came to light when it was revealed that, shortly after Huebsch voted to approve the controversial gas plant in January, 2020, he applied for the open position of CEO at Dairyland Power Cooperative, one of two utilities who filed the application. In the hearing, Sierra Club elicited testimony demonstrating that Commissioner Huebsch, in voting to approve a major project for a utility he sought employment from soon thereafter, and one of whose high level executives he had a close personal relationship, was exposed to undue pressure to approve the project, which would have impacted any reasonable person in his position.

This approval, if allowed to stand, could have significant financial impacts for Dairyland customers: a 2019 study published by Rocky Mountain Institute found 90 percent of 88 proposed gas plants, NTEC included, would end up costing more than if the utilities instead invested in wind, solar and energy efficiency.

Sierra Club and other groups have also raised concerns about NTEC’s environmental impacts, especially as the PSC decided not to consider the full scope of climate impacts associated with the plant. Others, including the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, also have opposed the proposed plant, raising concerns about its impact on local wetlands and the larger climate.

In response, Sierra Club Wisconsin Director Elizabeth Ward released the following statement:

“Commissioner Huebsch’s decision to vote to approve NTEC, given his conflicts of interest and undue contact with Dairyland, raises profound ethical concerns. His vote was pivotal in giving Dairyland approval to construct its largest new infrastructure project in years, and then we learned that vote came only months before he applied to run that company. This entire incident only underscores the broader concerns we have about overly close relationships between public servants and the industries they regulate.

“Building a new fossil gas plant would be an environmental and economic disaster that would leave communities saddled with climate-disrupting emissions and a bad investment, both of which we’ll be paying for for decades. Utilities need to get it out of their head that gas is a cheaper and cleaner alternative to coal. It’s simply not true. From the point it is fracked out of the ground, piped across the country, and finally burned at power plants, gas has dire impacts on our air, water, and climate that are just as bad as other fossil fuels like coal.”