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Georgia PSC Bars Affiliate From Using Utility's Name

Georgia PSC Bars Affiliate From Using Utility's Name

Retail gas marketers won a major victory last week when a Georgia Public Service Commission hearing officer ordered Atlanta Gas Light's unregulated marketing affiliate to "immediately discontinue" the use of the name Atlanta Gas Light Services (AGLS) and stop referring to its heritage, reliability and trustworthiness with respect to its affiliation with the state's largest gas utility.

The order is effective July 23 unless challenged, in which case the commission would vote on it. AGL spokesman Ross Willis said he expected both AGLS and the parent company to file for appeal.

When the AGL Resources subsidiary announced in April that it was changing its name to AGLS from The Energy Spring Inc., AGLS President Stephen Gunther said, "Customers have a right to know with whom they are doing business," i.e., a company Georgians have "known and trusted for reliable gas service for many years."

Marketers, including PanCanadian Energy Services, Utility Management Corp., Infinite Energy, Petroleum Source and Systems, Fina Natural Gas, Optimum Energy Sources and SCANA Energy Marketing, protested that the change gave the affiliate an unfair advantage, violating the Georgia Gas Competition and Deregulation Act.

AGLS responded it was the one being disadvantaged because it had to compete with nationally recognized companies, such as Shell Energy Services Co., a subsidiary of Houston-based Shell Oil. But the PSC hearing officer noted their name recognition "comes from a competitive environment and not the existing retail natural gas monopoly environment.

"Any potential harm that may be claimed by AGLS, AGLC and AGL Resources Inc. as the result of being required to discontinue the use of the greatly outweighed by the assurances that such a change will enhance the competitive environment in Georgia," the hearing officer added. "The marketing affiliate will rely on the reputation it builds as a separate entity and its own business acumen to secure customers in Georgia, just as all other marketers."

AGLS also had argued the First Amendment prohibited the commission from issuing a cease and desist order directing it to refrain from using "Atlanta Gas Light" in its name. The hearing officer disagreed, however, citing a 1980 decision by the Supreme Court, which stated that for commercial speech to be protected by the First Amendment it must not be misleading. "Contrary to the arguments that have been made, the similarity in names of the present retail supplier, Atlanta Gas Light Company, and the marketer, Atlanta Gas Light Services Inc., is so close that confusion of the identity of the two is assured."

The decision orders Atlanta Gas Light Services to immediately discontinue the use of the name and stop making any statements or representations that use its affiliation with Atlanta Gas Light.

Rocco Canonica

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