Outspoken 29-year-old Mont. utility commissioner calls it like he sees it

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 1, 2014

SEATTLE — An audience gathered here earlier this month to hear the first bits of intelligence on new proposed federal limits on power plant emissions. Travis Kavulla was ready.

He and Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Ralph Cavanagh stole the show on the second day of the Western Conference of Public Service Commissioners. Kavulla grabbing the spotlight with a spirited attack on U.S. EPA’s 1-day-old rule, which he called “infantilizing” to states in its emphasis on “building blocks” like improving efficiency at fossil-fueled power plants and switching to other less-emitting power sources.

“They get to be the children in this great game of federalism and put the building blocks together however they want,” he said.

Kavulla, an elected commissioner at the Montana Public Service Commission, at 29 is one of the youngest public utility regulators in the country. But he easily matched the rhetorical skills of Cavanagh, an energy industry veteran who has been with NRDC since before Kavulla was born.

Cavanagh joked that someone had committed a “cruel fraud” by sending Kavulla a different version of EPA’s proposal with the same number of pages as the original. The “real rule,” he said, would give states the flexibility to choose their own emissions-reduction policies in order to “suspend the very dangerous experiment we’re all conducting with the climate.”

They sparred to the point where their fellow panelist, Puget Sound Energy CEO Kimberly Harris, couldn’t get a word in edgewise. “The space between you and Travis would like to speak now,” she said.

Kavulla is a relative newcomer to the energy field. He “fell into” it in 2009 when he returned to his hometown of Great Falls, Mont., after a stint in Africa and was recruited by friends in city government to help dissolve the municipal utility Electric City Power after the state’s decadelong experiment with deregulation.

Mary Jolley, a fellow concerned citizen who ran for city commissioner in the wake of the debate and is now justice of the peace in Cascade County, first met Kavulla when he was in high school.

“He got one question wrong on his SATs,” she said. “Of course, all high school kids know everything. He’s not as smart as he used to be, but he’s more humble.”

She said Kavulla’s help researching the utility and its plans was invaluable. “It was like the cavalry came in,” she said. “Travis came in and just became a very articulate criticizer.”

Because utility commissioners are elected officials in Montana, Kavulla, a Republican, was able to parlay that experience into a 2010 bid to succeed a Democrat on the Public Service Commission (he is currently running unopposed for re-election).

“I had a primary against a state senator and a general election against a former state senator,” he said. “The reality is, they were good guys, but they had even less interest in and experience in energy than I did.”

Before that, Kavulla was a journalist based in East Africa, where he covered politics. He still moonlights as a columnist for the National Review, writing most recently about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over land use. (“Bundy’s truculence has created one positive outcome,” Kavulla wrote. “It has focused the wider public’s attention on a fact that few in America’s urban centers have to grapple with: that in most of the largest states of the union, an enormous amount of land is publicly owned, and under the control of an alphabet soup of federal agencies.”)

He majored in history at Harvard University and got his master’s degree from the University of Cambridge, studying the history of development aid in East Africa. His thesis was “a parable about how governments can have big ambitions and plans which fail spectacularly because of their misalignment with local beliefs and priorities.”

‘A surrogate for competition’

Kavulla sees his job on the Montana PSC as restoring free-market spirit to a heavily regulated industry.

“A good regulator is there to be a surrogate for competition in a monopolistic environment,” he said. “The way utility rates are made, there’s a real risk of uneconomic decisions being made because costs and risks can be outsourced to the consuming public.”

He places himself toward the libertarian side of the conservative spectrum. “It underscores my thinking on a day-to-day basis about what incentives to present to utilities to make them behave like any other business on the planet,” he said.

Republicans, he said, “especially on elected commissions, can sometimes come into the job thinking, ‘I’m a Republican, which means I’m pro-business, and the IOU is a business, therefore I’ll just vote with the utility every single time.’ Which is crazy, because they’re not really much of a business. They’re too often made into a ward of the state who seeks political patronage rather than making truly efficient business decisions.”

Cavanagh, who has been on panels with Kavulla previously, said he enjoyed exchanging ideas with him.

“He is a committed conservative, but he also enjoys interacting with people across the full ideological spectrum, and I think Travis genuinely likes to test his ideas, to listen to other people,” he said. “I always learn something new whenever I interact with him, and I have a suspicion he feels the same way.”

Uniting the West

Aside from the conference circuit, Kavulla has been making inroads on the regulatory front. He is participating in a new Western energy imbalance market, currently preparing for an October launch within six states, which would allow grid operators to manage electricity in smaller units in order to fill unused transmission capacity more efficiently (Greenwire, June 19).

Kavulla is the chairman of the public utility commissioners’ working group that is focused on extending the market to the rest of the West. He was also named last month to a committee that will work out a long-term governance structure for the market.

“There’s a lot of things to be said for the headroom that the West has in terms of regional cooperation that in some respects has gone unfulfilled,” he said.

Observers said Kavulla’s own trajectory also has significant potential.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Travis someday on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or maybe he’ll end up being governor of Montana,” Cavanagh said. “We have not heard the last of Travis Kavulla.”

Jolley echoed Cavanagh. “We want him to run for governor someday,” she said. “Why not?”