Columbia Gas rate increase approved by state

Thousands of Clark, Champaign customers affected; watchdog group says many will be hurt by changes.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A state utilities commission last week approved an agreement with Columbia Gas of Ohio that could hike set monthly charges to natural gas customers across the state by more than 50% over the next several years.

Residential customers will initially experience an approximate $3-4 increase in their monthly bill, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), which approved the settlement on Thursday. It’s unclear when this increase will occur.

Columbia Gas of Ohio’s coverage area includes nearly 1.5 million Ohioans, including thousands of customers in both Clark and Champaign counties.

Base rates recover the company’s cost to install, repair, upgrade and operate the natural gas delivery system, according to Columbia Gas of Ohio. This system includes approximately 20,000 miles of pipelines, stations, meters and more.

Columbia Gas said it needs the increase to improve its distribution infrastructure because it hasn’t filed for such a base rate increase since 2008.

Columbia Gas of Ohio, like other utility providers in the state, is ordered to file final tariffs with the PUCO to implement new rates and notify its customers within 30 days.

A Columbia Gas of Ohio spokesperson said on Monday that the settlement was agreed upon by PUCO Staff, the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, Commercial Customer Groups, Natural Gas Suppliers and Governmental Aggregators and the Schools Council.

The cost of natural gas is not a part of this rate case.

The Ohio Capital Journal reported in November that a stipulation in the settlement would allow Columbia to increase its maximum fixed monthly charges from $36 to $56 — more than a 50% increase — over five years.

The settlement approved by PUCO is expected to produce a total increase in base distribution rates by $68.19 million on an annual basis statewide.

Columbia of Gas of Ohio originally requested distribution rate changes that would amount to $221.4 million annually, according to its application.

“The settlement agreement in this case is a reasonable resolution to this case that balances impacts to monthly bills while supporting utility investments in safety and economic development programs,” stated PUCO Chair Jenifer French in a press release.

Critics of the agreement say it will negatively impact low-income customers and increase Ohioans’ difficulties with being able to pay their bills during a period where the cost of natural gas is on the rise.

Robert Kelter, senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), said the center is “very disappointed” with PUCO’s decision, saying the approval of the base rate agreement would ultimately raise the fixed customer rate to $58 per month.

“It particularly hurts low-income customers who typically use less gas,” Kelter said in a statement on behalf of the ELPC.

Kelter said PUCO “made matters worse” by also approving Columbia’s cut to its low-income energy efficiency programs that help customers lower bills.

“This decision will cause many customers to face increased difficulties paying their bills,” he said.

Columbia Gas is continuing its low-income home weatherization program, known as WarmChoice, providing $70 million in funding over the next five years.

Columbia will also implement a new $3.5 million bill-payment assistance program. PUCO modified the settlement to clarify the $3.5 million in bill-payment assistance should be funded by Columbia Gas of Ohio shareholders, and not in part by customers, according to a commission release.

A Columbia Gas spokesperson said the utility provider also provides a variety of bill payment assistance, energy efficiency programs and other payment programs for customers needing assistance.

As of 2019, Columbia Gas served 38,000 residential customers in Clark County and roughly 5,000 in Champaign County. The utility provider declined to share updated figures for its Clark and Champaign County customer bases.

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