No Joke: Delinquent GA Gas Customers Face Shutoffs
Come April Fool's Day it will be no joke. Nearly 200,000 Georgia natural
gas customers who haven't paid their winter heating bills risk losing their
service, and the threat is so real that the Georgia Public Service Commission
(PSC) is warning consumers delinquent in their payments to contact their
marketers now. The PSC's moratorium on nonpayment shutoffs, enacted Jan.
17, expires the first day of next month.
The state's marketers said that while they don't expect to shut off
service to all those delinquent on their payments, many will be affected.
Atlanta Gas Light Co. estimates that 14% of its 1.5 million customers are
at risk for disconnection next month, and though it can only shut off about
1,200 customers a day, or 24,000 a month, it does expect to begin cutting
"We do not want to shut off more than we can turn back on in a
timely manner," said AGL's Nick Gold. "It may take months to
work through this."
Georgia Natural Gas Services, which has 560,000 customers, estimates
that as many as 60,000 have not paid their bills. Scana Energy estimates
it has about 6,000 customers in arrears that are completing payment plans
but will target shut-offs to those that have "never paid or refused
to work with Scana." All totaled, the PSC estimates nearly 200,000
could be shut off.
The commission is planning to issue an advisory explaining the situation
to consumers, and already has issued this statement: "Do not wait
until the end of the month of March to contact your marketer or you may
not be able to get through to your marketer in time."
Given the recent problems with Georgia's marketers, PSC Commissioner
Robert Baker said the PSC's biggest concern is that "customers who
have been paying their bills could be improperly shut off because of administrative
In February, Commission Chairman Lauren "Bubba" McDonald Jr.
sent a "sternly worded letter" to the CEOs of every natural gas
marketer operating in the state, criticizing marketers for failing to adequately
alleviate consumer concerns regarding high gas prices, billing problems
and the availability of payment assistance programs (see NGI, Feb. 26).
Each marketer has a different plan to deal with delinquent customers.
The PSC requires service to be disconnected only with five days notice
when payments are 45 days late, when the gas marketer has made a "good
faith" effort to contact the customer and when the marketer is available
on the disconnection date to receive payment.
AGL plans to begin sending technicians to disconnect gas service on
April 2. Georgia Natural Gas said it placed 5,000 automated telephone calls
last week reminding customers about the deadline, and said it is continuing
to place 1,000 similar calls every day this week. Letters will begin to
be sent to customers on March 21. Scana plans a "tiered" approach,
starting with those customers that have made no effort to ever pay their
bills. At Shell Energy, letters are being sent to customers first who have
already received prior notices about being disconnected for nonpayment.
Ironically, earlier this month, two Georgia marketers lowered their
natural gas prices - Scana marked down its variable residential price by
14%; Shell Energy's price dropped 13%. In February, Georgia Natural Gas
dropped its prices 20%. Under the state's deregulation plan, Georgia marketers
offer fixed prices guaranteed for a year or more, however, only about 25%
of Georgia consumers have selected these types of plans.
Carolyn Davis, Houston