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PSC staff plan to investigate increase in cost of natural gas

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The Public Service Commission asked its staff Tuesday to study natural gas bills of Alabama residents and determine if gas companies are charging more than they claim.

Rates charged by Alabama Gas Corp. and other regulated gas companies have gone up 37 percent this winter because supply was disrupted by Hurricane Katrina and other factors, according to the industry. But commissioners said they are hearing from Alabama residents who have complained their bills are as much as 400 percent higher than last year.

"I think the question everyone has is: Why are our bills so much higher than last year?" Sullivan said.

Public hearing

Commissioner George Wallace Jr. had planned to ask the commission to schedule a public hearing on the issue in two weeks, but withdrew the request to give the commission's staff a chance to study individual bills and determine if they have gone up an exorbitant amount. Commissioners said a hearing may be scheduled later depending on the results of the investigation.

The commission agreed to the investigation after a contentious discussion between Wallace and Sullivan. Sullivan, the commission president, seemed concerned about statements Wallace has made concerning high gas rates.

"Sometimes in Montgomery we talk an issue to death," Sullivan said.

"I'm sorry Commissioner Sullivan thinks I'm acting irresponsibly," Wallace said.

The exchange between Wallace and Sullivan came after Wallace asked the commission to allow people in the audience to speak about how high their gas bills have been this winter.

"I feel sorry for these folks, which is my family tradition and I take that seriously," said Wallace, son of former Govs. George and Lurleen Wallace.

Sullivan said allowing members of the public to speak would violate the PSC's rules, but instead he told members of the PSC staff to meet individually with the consumers and help them find assistance in paying their bills.

Other firms

Meanwhile, Alabama Gas and Mobile Gas both said Tuesday that they have asked for a decrease in rates — 4.2 percent for Alabama Gas and 5 percent for Mobile Gas — because the amount the companies are paying for wholesale gas prices has gone down.

Alabama Gas spokeswoman Susan Delenne said the 37 percent increase was an annual figure and that it's possible for the percent of the hike to vary from month to month. She also said other factors figure into the amount of a bill, such as the weather and how much gas was used.

Delenne said the company would cooperate with the PSC's investigation of gas bills.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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