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North Dakota official questions Xcel Energy's use of private planes

Kevin Cramer

A North Dakota Public Service Commission member has asked Xcel Energy to detail how the costs of rented corporate jets are charged to the utility's electric and gas customers in the state.

Kevin Cramer said his request follows the release of investigative reports by the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Twin Cities television station KSTP that indicate Xcel frequently uses the jets to shuttle top executives and other employees around the region.

KSTP asserts its observers regularly saw only one or two passengers getting on or debarking from the airplanes, which often travel between the St. Paul airport and Denver.

Cramer said the appearance of wasteful spending by the utility "appears to be at least worth checking into," particularly given the sacrifices many have made in this recession.

"Xcel Energy seems to have an issue with a lack of sensitivity, I guess is the best way I can put it ... toward what is being experienced by common people, ratepayers, customers, citizens, of our country," Cramer said. "That's what bothers me as much as anything."

He wants to know the total cost of operating the planes and how much of that is paid by North Dakotans, the air miles flown, number of trips, total number of travelers, number of trips to cities served by commercial air service, number of family and friends of Xcel employees who flew unrelated to the utility's business, and tons of carbon dioxide disbursed by the planes.

Xcel reported $11.2 billion in operating revenue for 2008, Securities and Exchange Commission filings show.

Cramer said about 5 percent of Xcel's revenues come from North Dakota, but it supplies much of the electricity and gas for Fargo and Grand Forks, and electricity in Minot.

The amount spent on the corporate jets will be a tiny fraction of ratepayers' bills, Cramer said, but it's a symbolic fraction. He said it also represents money that could have gone to shareholders.

"Frankly, I would like to see them, if not ground those planes, significantly reduce the use of rented, private aircraft, the way many companies have done in this country," Cramer said.

Xcel spokeswoman Bonnie Lund said the utility will supply the answers to Cramer's questions by Monday and send them to The Forum as well.

The Star Tribune reported the jets seat eight.

Judy Poferl, president and CEO of Xcel subsidiary Northern States Power Co.-Minnesota, told the Star Tribune the flights averaged five passengers.

KSTP reported that it had tracked 600 Xcel flights over a year's time.

Xcel told KSTP it flew the jets 809 times last year.

The Star Tribune reported that nearly the entire $5.8 million annual corporate aviation budget for the two leased jets was charged back to ratepayers in the eight states in which Xcel operates.

The two jets cost about $1,200 an hour to fly, Xcel told the Star Tribune.