2006-01-27 / Local News

Relief from high gas bills could be on the way if rate reduction approved

By SCOTT BAUGHMAN Ledger Staff Writer scottb@gaffneyledger.com

With some Cherokeeans paying double or triple their natural gas bills this winter, local consumers are clamoring for utility bill assistance.

And some relief might be in sight.

For the second time in three weeks, major local provider Piedmont Natural Gas (PNG) has filed a request with state regulators to reduce its rates.

The request seeks a reduction in the company’s wholesale cost of gas in customer rates from $11.00 per dekatherm (approximately 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas) to $8.50 per dekatherm, a 22.7 percent decrease. The reduction request follows on the heels of an earlier decrease in the cost of gas from $13 per dekatherm to $11.

“We pass through the wholesale cost of gas to our customers, dollar for dollar,” said Headen Thomas, a spokesman for PNG. “When the wholesale cost is up, we’ll send a request to let us increase the price. But, when the cost goes down, we ask for a decrease, too.” Astronomical prices in natural gas had a familiar culprit, according to Thomas. The country’s natural gas infrastructure was wrecked by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita during the summer.

“Gas prices have come down dramatically from their December peak,” Thomas said. “And while there is no refinement of gas like that for oil, Gulf Coast production facilities and supply infrastructure continues to come back on line to moderate prices. Recent warm weather in many parts of the country has also impacted prices. Even with the proposed reduction, however, the cost of gas still remains above last year’s prices.”

The federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently revised its winter forecast and predicted residential heating costs — both for users of natural gas and fuel oil — will be slightly less than had been predicted six weeks ago.

Still, the agency estimated that people using natural gas will be paying on average about $1,000 for the heating season this year, or 35 percent more than last winter. Households using fuel oil will pay an average of $1,474, or 23 percent more than a year ago.

Local charities are trying to assist customers.

“We can only help pay part of their bills this year,” said Joann Harrison, director of PEACHCenter Ministries. “There’s no way we can pay the whole bill. Several groups are working together this year to pay off one person’s bill, but everyone has seen a dropoff in donations. I’ve seen about 993 people come in here last month for kerosene and January is probably going to be a lot worse. Anyone who wants to help out can donate to us in person at 518 North Limestone Street or mail it to PO Box 554, Gaffney, SC, 29342.”

The Gaffney Board of Public Works is also offering some heating bill help with its ‘Project Hope’ program. Customers can voluntarily round up their power bill to the nearest whole dollar, with the difference distributed to needy customers of BPW through PEACHCenter Ministries.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents state energy offices, estimates more than 5.6 million people will file for federal help to pay heating bills. Congress has provided $2.1 billion for the program and the Bush administration recently released $100 million for immediate use — amounts Wolfe says are about the same as in past years when the need was far less.

‘‘It’s only January ... when the next bills come, a lot of families will be unable to pay,’’ Wolfe said.

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