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Big heating bills forecast for this winter

Monday, August 25, 2003

Natural gas prices could rise as much as 30 percent

SIKESTON - With temperatures up over 100 with the heat index, heating bills are the last thing on most people's minds even with a projected 30-percent rise in natural gas prices.

The Missouri Public Service Commission's meeting in Sikeston recently was evidence of that. "We did not have very many people in the Sikeston meeting (Wednesday)," said Kevin Kelly, information officer for the PSC.

The Sikeston town hall meeting at City Hall, one of 15 meetings scheduled around the state over the last few weeks, was held as "an effort to get out and educate people as to why gas prices might be higher this winter and what they can do to prepare for it," Kelly explained.

Warren Wood, manager of the PSC's energy department, gave a presentation on "current natural gas prices and what those prices could mean for heating bills this winter."

Based on these current prices and rates, Sikeston natural gas customers could see a 30 percent increase in the gas bills this winter over last year, according to Wood.

"That's the midpoint of the range of where we expect things will go between now and next winter," said Wood. "That's representative of the current cost of gas and assuming normal weather."

Significant changes in prices or deviations from normal weather will affect this figure, Wood cautioned.

Wood said he also presented information on "ways of restricting your usage of natural gas" such as weatherization of homes and tune-ups for furnaces for greater efficiency.

"We know its hot," said Wood, but even so, now is the time to prepare homes, "prior to us getting into the winter heating season."

Information on how to get help with heating bills was also presented such as the "budget billing" program offered by Atmos in which usage over the last 12 months is averaged to determine the monthly bill. "It takes out some of the spikes you might see in the winter," said Kelly.

PSC officials also advised customers finding themselves unable to pay a bill to contact their utility company so they can arrange a payment agreement or apply for energy assistance.

The wholesale market for natural gas is no longer regulated by the PSC or any federal government agency as Congress deregulated natural gas rates over a decade ago. Prices are determined in an open, competition-based market, with per-unit cost for customers being adjusted either up or down to reflect wholesale prices up to four times per year.

The PSC does review purchasing decisions of regulated natural gas utilities in Missouri. If imprudence is discovered in their purchasing efforts, the PSC seeks refunds for customers.

Also, the PSC has required heat-related utility service providers under their jurisdiction to abide by the Commission's Cold Weather Rule since 1977.

The Cold Weather Rule is designed to help customers maintain heat-related service during the winter, mandating certain notice requirements and prohibiting disconnection of heat-related services when temperatures are forecast to drop below 30 degrees.