I'm Not Sure Tyler Axness Actually Knows What The Public Service Commission Does


Yesterday we got news that, about a month away from their state convention, Democrats got just their second statewide candidate. State Senator Tyler Axness, who is in his first term representing the newly-created District 16 in Fargo, is announcing a campaign for the Public Service Commission today.

I’m told that Axness will be challenging Julie Fedorchak, who is seeking to have her appointment to complete Kevin Cramer’s term confirmed  by voters. Whoever wins will have to run again at the end of the term in 2016.

The Fargo Forum’s Mike Nowatzki interviewed Axness about his decision to run, and the candidate cited three things as motivations that have…nothing to do with the Public Service Commission.

Axness said the massive oil pipeline leak in Tioga, the train derailment on the western edge of Casselton and placement of oil pits above the drinking water supply for Ross are indicators the PSC is not doing its job.

“We’ve been governing this with our fingers crossed in the hopes that if we just sit back, things will work themselves out,” he said.

Each of the things Axness mentioned are legitimate fodder for public debate. And, if the Public Service Commission had anything to do with any of those incidents, they’d be a fine basis for a campaign.

The problem is that the PSC doesn’t do much with railroads any more. Per the PSC’s website, “The Commission’s regulatory authority over railroads diminished as a result of the enactment of the federal Staggers Rail Act in 1980 and the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) Termination Act in 1995. he 1995 enactment eliminated many ICC functions and transferred all remaining duties to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) within the Department of Transportation.” The PSC is now little more than a representative of North Dakota’s rail interests to the federal government. Certainly, the PSC isn’t doing the sort of track and rail car inspections that would be relevant to the Casselton derailment.

The PSC also doesn’t regulate oil pipeline safety. The PSC does regulate rates and charges related to pipelines, and they do regulate natural gas pipelines that are entirely within the state, but the Tioga oil pipeline to which Axness refers was something inspected by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Commissioner Brian Kalk has promoted an idea wherein the PSC beings a program to inspect these pipelines, but you can hardly blame the PSC for not doing their job in inspecting a pipeline that wasn’t in their jurisdiction before the Tioga spill.

As for the oil waste pit citing, that was the North Dakota Industrial Commissions Department of Mineral Resources. Again, a valid topic for public debate, but if Axness wants to campaign on that issue he should run for Commissioner of Agriculture or Attorney General, as those are the offices with a seat on the NDIC.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Axness isn’t very clear on the duties of the job he’s running for. His resume is pretty thin for such a key regulatory position. According to his legislative website, he’s a recent college graduate with a BA in political science from NDSU who works as a “Communication and Policy Coordinator” for the Freedom Center, a non-profit advocating rights for the disabled.

All of which is fine, but doesn’t exactly commend one to a regulatory position covering everything from telecommunications to energy.

It’s almost like Axness was given the generic list of talking points North Dakota Democrats are pushing this election year, and recited them verbatim when asked about his own campaign.