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PSO proposes third rate hike in one year as corporation commissioner questions 'corruption' and 'deceit'

 a power line
Public Service Company Oklahoma

Updated Thursday at 7:27 a.m.

Tulsans could see an increase of $14 per month in their power bills under a proposed rate increase from Public Service Company of Oklahoma.

If approved by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission,the 10% increase could be the third rate hike by the utility company since December. A spokesperson for PSO, Wayne Greene, said the $173 million that’s expected to be collected will be used to “cover total investment,” strengthen the current power grid, and encourage clean energy.

Greene declined to disclose PSO’s net profit.

While the corporation commission has let previous rate hikes go through, not every commissioner has agreed. On Tuesday, Commissioner Bob Anthony submitted a 14-page dissenting opinion related to a different fuel cost battle. While the case involves Oklahoma Gas & Electric, the opinion cites “credible evidence of public corruption and undisclosed conflicts of interest” at OCC where "deceit abounds."

“The OCC has a long history of permitting cozy relationships with powerful special interests and neglecting to acknowledge and correct its subsequent regulatory failures,“ wrote Anthony, going on to say that Oklahoma’s Constitution gives the commission investigatory powers through Article IX. According to that article, the commission has the power and “duty” to regulate companies while “correcting abuses and preventing unjust discrimination and extortion” through the enforcement of rates it has the power to “alter or amend.”

Tom Seng, professor and director of the school of energy at the University of Tulsa, said the commission isn’t where responsibility for regulation chiefly rests, however. Seng, who said rate increases both “proposed and already approved” are related to February 2021’s winter storm when utilities paid suppliers more for gas, said Gov. Kevin Stitt bears more responsibility.

“The governor declared that an emergency existed [in 2021] which automatically activated the anti-price gouging statutes. That would make the actions of some of these suppliers illegal,” Seng wrote to Public Radio Tulsa.

Seng also pointed to Attorney General John O’Connor, whose office is tasked with consumer protection. In May, O’Connor was chastised by two state Supreme Court justices for not more vigorously representing ratepayers.

“The question has to be why the governor and attorney general failed in their duty to investigate these suppliers so that the ratepayers of Oklahoma were treated fairly by those who sold natural gas to our utilities,” wrote Seng. “This was a ‘human needs’ event and I find it abhorrent that some people made windfall profits on gas.”

When asked why PSO has not put pressure on the governor or attorney general to investigate suppliers, Seng said it’s not in PSO’s purview as a private company.

“On the one hand, I do wish that they had contacted the attorney general's office about the prices they had to pay so an investigation would've been initiated. On the other hand, while they are supposed to advocate for their ratepayers, I don't see that they view market prices as an issue they wish to engage in,” wrote Seng, noting that by law utilities can’t inflate the price of gas.

Greene echoed that PSO doesn’t set the price of gas, noting part of the company’s plan is to invest in “fuel-free resources.”

Meanwhile, consumers are left to worry over increasing costs. In a public comment submitted to the OCC (cs@occ.ok.gov) for PSO’s rate increase case, Tulsan John McCuistion wrote that a third rate increase will especially hurt those on a limited income.

“Even the average employee in this state has not received a pay increase or one that has even come close to what inflation is today,” wrote McCuistion. “To me the entire reason we have inflation is corporations being greedy. All you have to do is look at executive pay and their profit margins.”

This article was updated for more accurate language around PSO's net profit.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.