Residents feel heat

Natural gas prices soar as winter approaches

Lori Telfer considered asking her mother to move in with her during the winter even before a 47 percent increase in natural gas prices was announced.

Now, she doesn't know what to do. The price of heat already accounts for one-sixth of her mother's monthly income without adding the $50 average increase customers have been told to expect starting Nov. 1

"What are people like that supposed to do?" Telfer asked. "It's really sad to me."

Telfer, a county resident who heats her home using propane, has fewer concerns, but even the cost of propane is rising. She said she's lucky to have a coal-burning stove. And she said it's lucky for her mother that there are energy-assistance programs created to help people like her mother.

Atmos Energy has asked the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to approve a gas cost adjustment to account for rising natural gas prices. What customers will see is an increase in the cost of natural gas, not what Atmos charges to deliver it.

"Atmos Energy does not make a profit on natural gas," company spokeswoman Karen Wilkes said. "Atmos earns its income from the fees for delivering gas and maintaining the distribution system."

The PUC restricts the company from making more than an 11.25 percent profit from those fees.

Natural gas prices are increasing across the nation. Colorado's feeling the pinch less because of the amount of natural gas available in the state, said Joe Christian, vice president of rates and regulations for Atmos energy's Colorado-Kansas division.

Texas residents are seeing increases of 70 to 80 percent.

Increases in Colorado range from 38 to 52 percent -- but Wilkes said the dollar effect of the increase is about the same.

She urges customers to sign up for budget billing, an Atmos Energy program that averages a customer's bills for the past 12 months so that the bill is about the same amount each month.

"It really does help get customers get through the winter if they can budget," Wilkes said.

Six percent of Atmos customers have signed up for budget billing.

Christian said hurricanes Kat-rina and Rita are to blame for soaring natural gas prices. The devastation they caused has left two-thirds of the Gulf Coast's natural gas production shut in.

Twenty percent of the nation's natural gas comes from the Gulf Coast.

"There's more competition for Colorado gas now that gulf supplies are restricted," Christian said.

He said the common belief is that prices have peaked, and they're expected to begin falling in March or April.

The last time customers experienced a decrease in natural gas prices was in 2003, when they fell 5 to 10 percent.

Although this isn't the largest increase customers have seen -- the price for natural gas went up substantially in 1997 and 2001 -- Christian said the current price of $12 per million cubic feet is the highest he's ever seen in Colorado.

"It's going to be so important the customers conserve," Wilkes said.

But conservation isn't an option for everyone.

Keith Antonsen, director of the Moffat County Housing Authority, said senior citizens often don't have the option of turning down thermostats and putting on heavy sweaters because of health concerns.

Even if they did, they wouldn't notice a difference -- their rent at Sunset Meadows independent living center includes utilities.

Antonsen budgeted a 17 to 18 percent increase in natural gas prices for the 88 apartments in the complex.

"It doesn't sound like I'll be close," he said. "Gasoline is bad enough, but this is something you have no choice in."

He said capital improvement or maintenance projects likely will be delayed to pay the gas bill.

"We're kind of in a wait-and-see mode," he said. "We're like everyone else is, scared to death but hoping we have a mild winter."

A 47 percent increase could mean hundreds of dollars to businesses. Atmos Energy reported the average commercial bill will increase from $481.66 to $716.21.

Bear Valley Inn owner Dave Bradshaw said the effect to his business will be greater.

"We don't look forward to higher costs," he said, "Especially in the winter, when business is slow."

He said room rates are governed by the time of year and the demand, so that's not something easily adjusted to help offset higher utility costs.

"Demand dictates what we can charge," he said. "You still have to be competitive. It's not like we can charge an energy surcharge."

Wilkes said that changing the thermostat by one degree can save -- or cost -- a customer 3.1 percent and that installing a programmable thermos that decreases heat during the night or while out of the house can save a customer 10 percent a year.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.