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Columbia Gas customers can choose suppliers

February 06, 1997

By FRANCA LEWIS

Staff Writer

Residential gas customers soon can make the same kind of service choice that they do for long-distance telephone calls.

Under Columbia Choice, a test program sponsored by Columbia Gas of Maryland, the utility's 16,000 local customers have the option of choosing a different natural gas supplier, according to John Quinn, regulatory policy manager at the Columbia Gas corporate center.

Quinn and other Columbia Gas officials were in Hagerstown on Thursday to discuss the program.

The growing trend to deregulate utility markets has prompted independent companies to jump into the business of buying and reselling natural gas, Quinn said.

The purchase of gas accounts for 53 percent of a residential monthly bill, he said.

Columbia Gas will continue to provide service, Quinn said. The only difference is that independent suppliers will use the Columbia Gas pipeline to deliver natural gas to customers, he said.

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About 30 independent suppliers now use Columbia's distribution system in Maryland, Quinn said.

Unlike Columbia Gas, the independents are not regulated, he said.

Residential customers might find they are being courted by independent suppliers who offer savings and cash awards for switching, he said.

"People don't need to be afraid to shop around," Quinn said. "Columbia Gas will still be here for them."

The gas company is preparing to enter the pilot program's second phase, in which customers can make the voluntary switch between June 1 and Aug. 31.

The first phase of the Columbia Choice program drew about 300 Maryland residential customers in November, Quinn said. The company had expected 1,000 customers to sign up.

In Washington, Pa., near Pittsburgh, the program drew 5,300 residential customers when it was introduced in November.

Commercial customers have had the savings opportunity for more than a decade, Quinn said. New commercial customers can sign up beginning in March.

Before switching suppliers, gas users should get a copy of any contract and make sure it states the length of time and any guaranteed savings, Columbia gas officials said.

Any customer who isn't satisfied with the supplier can, after a year, switch back to Columbia Gas without penalty, Quinn said.

The gas company plans to hold several community meetings during the summer to inform customers about Columbia Choice.

  • For more information about the program, call toll free, 1-888-ASK-4NRG (275-4674).
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