As temperatures dip, natural gas prices climb

Just as furnaces through the Yampa Valley rumbled on, natural gas prices went up again.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has approved Atmos Energy's application to increase natural gas prices for the second time this year. Effective Nov. 1, residential natural gas increased by 86 cents per ccf, or 100 cubic feet. Commercial natural gas prices climbed by 83 cents per ccf.

That means the average resident's monthly gas bill should increase from $118 to $142, according to Atmos Energy.

But the rising price of heating one's home with natural gas isn't sending people to other heating sources.

The Craig Chamber of Commerce has seen a modest increase in woodcutting applications, Lynda Becker, chamber office manager, said.

"It's not a massive increase," Becker said.

As of Nov. 5, 2003, people had applied to cut 261 cords of wood in Routt National Forest. As of Friday, people have applied to cut 285 cords.

But because Black Mountain already is under snow, Becker didn't expect to get many more applications.

The U.S. Forest Service charges $10 per cord of wood. Customers must buy a minimum of two cords but can't buy more than 10. Most truck beds hold about half a cord of wood, forester Wendy Holden said.

Would-be lumberjacks can cut any dead wood within the forest boundary, as long as it is 100 feet from recreational areas, trails or roads. But the Forest Service prefers people take downed wood because standing dead trees can serve as wildlife habitat.

Twenty-mile Coal Company, the only Yampa Valley mine that sells retail coal, hasn't seen an increase in coal sales since Atmos announced its intentions to increase gas fees, said Ron Spangler, Twenty-mile Human Resource manager.

"We're running consistent with what we've seen the last couple years," Spangler said.

For $60 per ton, Twenty-mile sells lump or stoker coal. Stoker coal is crushed into pieces no larger than two inches, designed to burn in a stoker-type furnace. Most people buy lump coal, which comes in chunks of six to 12 inches.

Twenty-mile offers discounted prices for senior citizens.

Atmos last increased gas prices by 6 percent in March.

Residents may want to blame Atmos for the hit to their pocketbooks, but the Colorado Public Utilities Commission says the real blame lies with the volatility of the natural gas "spot" market.

Natural gas utilities regulated by the commission don't profit from retail charges for natural gas, said Barbara Fernandez, the Colorado PUC's chief of staff, during an interview in February before the first price hike.

Increases in natural gas to utilities are passed directly on to consumers.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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