Mountaineer Gas Co.'s 3,500 customers in Berkeley County, W.Va., have been spared from soaring natural gas prices.
Mountaineer Gas, a subsidiary of Allegheny Power doing business under the Allegheny name, froze rates in 1998 when the company reached a rate moratorium agreement with the Public Service Commission of West Virginia, company spokeswoman Sonya Miller said.
The natural gas distributor had the storage capacity to buy gas ahead of time at lower prices, Miller said.
"I think our customers are very happy we did that," she said.
Mountaineer Gas customers are paying about 72 cents per actual ccf used for the first 50 ccf and about 70 cents per actual ccf after that.
The average customer uses about 130 ccf and pays about $84 monthly, Miller said.
Those prices are locked in until Nov. 1, she said.
In response to record increases in the market price for natural gas, Mountaineer has filed for a rate increase to about 88 cents per ccf, which the company hopes the PSC will put into effect when the rate moratorium ends in November, Miller said.
The rate filing would increase the average customer's bill by about $37 monthly, she said.
'Pick your poison'
There were major natural gas shortages when gas suppliers were regulated by the federal government, Hoover, the MEA director, said. Deregulation has alleviated the shortages but allowed costs to increase.
"It's like, pick your poison," he said.
Last May, the General Assembly passed House Bill 1134, which gives the Maryland Public Service Commission some clear licensing and consumer protection power over natural gas suppliers.
Under the law, the PSC must adopt gas supplier licensing requirements and such consumer protection provisions as the establishment of contract, enrollment and billing procedures.
However, the PSC has no control over natural gas price increases.
The cost of the product coming out of the ground largely determines the market price, and the federal government will not regulate supply costs, Hoover said. Gas distribution companies can pass the costs they pay directly to their customers, he said.
Natural gas also fires many power plants, and high gas prices are one factor contributing to major electricity price increases and shortages in states such as California.
Tri-State residents who rely on electricity for heat won't be burdened by such problems this winter.
Nearly 90 percent of the plants that make electricity for Allegheny Energy - which supplies power to about 1.5 million customers in parts of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio - are fueled by coal, company spokesman Guy Fletcher said.
Allegheny Energy's rates are also regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission, he said.
Allegheny Energy residential customers using 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per month will see their monthly bills increase about $6 because the last of three annual rate adjustments took effect Jan. 8, Fletcher said.
The PSC approved the rate increases, which reflect higher base rates and a power co-generation surcharge, Fletcher said.
After the increase, the January bill for a typical residential customer remains more than $6 a month less than bills issued in January 2000, he said.
Starting in January 2002, Maryland residential customers will receive a one-time 7 percent rate reduction that will remain in effect for seven years, in accordance with a restructuring settlement approved the PSC, Fletcher said.