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Public Utilities Commission of Ohio approves big hike in gas charges

Natural Gas Pipes
Posted at 9:39 AM, Jan 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-30 15:09:23-05

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journaland published on under a content-sharing agreement.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio on Thursday agreed to a measure that could increase fixed monthly charges to 1.4 million Ohio natural gas customers by more than 50% over the next five years.

Regulators approved a compromise that was agreed to by Columbia Gas and the Office of the Ohio Consumer’s Counsel, the state’s ratepayer-funded consumer representative.

It means that after five years, gas customers might be paying as much as $58 a month simply to have gas service. The charge doesn’t include the cost of gas itself, the price of which also has increased sharply in recent years.

Columbia has said it needs the increase to improve its distribution infrastructure because it hasn’t filed for such a “base rate” increase in nearly 15 years.

The Consumer’s Counsel, the state’s official watchdog, said it signed off on the increase in part because it’s substantially less than the $80 a month in fixed costs Columbia originally requested.

“Under Ohio regulation as it currently exists, we negotiated with others to achieve the best obtainable result for consumers’ natural gas bills,” spokeswoman Merrilee Embs said in December.

However, other watchdog groups have big problems with the increase.

In addition to opposing the size of the hike and the fact that it cuts efficiency programs, critics also question the fairness of the measure. They note that customers will be paying the fixed cost regardless of whether they’re living in small apartments in dense neighborhoods or if they’re living in mansions on five-acre lots.

Not only are people living in mansions able to pay more, they say, it would take more and bigger gas lines to serve larger, more spread-out residences.

Rob Kelter, senior attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, on Thursday said his organization “is very disappointed in the Commission’s decision today. Raising the fixed customer charge to $58 per month guarantees utility profits at the expense of consumers. It particularly hurts low-income customers who typically use less gas. The Commission made matters worse by also approving Columbia’s cancellation of all but one low-income energy efficiency programs that help customers lower bills. This decision will cause many customers to face increased difficulties paying their bills.”

Columbia spokesman Eric Hardgrove said the increase is needed.

“The settlement… gives Columbia the authority to invest in system upgrades and continuously improve the safety and reliability of our infrastructure,” he said in an email Friday. “These investments, which the Commission must review and approve, could result in small increases not to exceed a total fixed charge of $56.51 in 2028. Rates could be less than this, depending upon the level of capital investments in Columbia’s system to improve safety and reliability over the next five years.”

The increase was granted by a utilities commission that has been criticized as favoring utilities over ratepayers.

As an example, testimony began last Monday in an epic bribery and money laundering case against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder. He is accused of masterminding a scheme in which electric utilities funneled $61 million through dark money groups to make Householder speaker in 2019. In exchange, Householder shepherded a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout of money-losing nuclear and coal plants, federal prosecutors allege.

Gov. Mike DeWine’s first appointee to chair the utility commission, Sam Randazzo, was paid $4.3 million by Akron-based FirstEnergy — by far the biggest beneficiary of the bailout — just before he took his seat on the PUCO.

Emails and other records show that Randazzo, a former FirstEnergy consultant, then spent months helping to write the bailout legislation benefiting utilities — Houser Bill 6 — even though he was supposed to be regulating them.

DeWine signed the bill the same day it passed out of the Ohio General Assembly.