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Georgia PSC Bars AGLS from Using Atlanta Gas Light Name

Georgia PSC Bars AGLS from Using Atlanta Gas Light Name

There is an unfair advantage in using the name of a 140-year-old utility when marketing gas in Georgia, the state public service commission ruled Friday, ordering Atlanta Gas Light Services (AGLS) to market gas in the state under a different brand until Atlanta Gas Light Co. exits the merchant function.

The commission, however, will allow the utility affiliate to use a disclaimer revealing that it is another subsidiary of AGL Resources. But it also must remind customers it gains no advantage over other marketers through that affiliation.

The PSC's decision followed an appeal by AGLS of a June 23 decision by a PSC hearing officer. Hearing Officer Philip Smith ruled the marketing affiliate could not use "Atlanta Gas Light" in its name because it would "mislead the public." Smith said the use of the name violated the standards of conduct set out in Georgia Natural Gas Competition and Deregulation Act.

The utility affiliate decided to change its name to Atlanta Gas Light Services from The Energy Spring in April, triggering a number of protests from other marketers. AGLS seems to have intended to use the utility's name from the beginning, having registered it in 1996.

AGLS claimed the hearing officer's decision actually would "reduce competition in direct violation of the statutory purposes of the [Georgia] natural gas act" when the deregulated market opens this fall. The company also said the decision was an "unprecedented, over-broad and punitive restriction on free speech."

However, the PSC ruled that although depriving the company of using the utility name may interfere with its commercial free speech "such interference is necessary to accomplish this substantial interest in promoting market-based competition."

The commission said it will allow the utility affiliate to use a disclaimer with its new name following the "transition" toward competition. It suggested the following: "[the company] is a subsidiary of AGL Resources, Inc. No advantage accrues to customers or others in the use of Atlanta Gas Light Company's services as a result of customers dealing with [the company]."

Once competition "has developed beyond its infancy the less restrictive means of a disclaimer should be adequate to address the state's interest in promoting market-based competition."

The PSC said it eventually might allow AGLS to use the utility's name "in a particular delivery group after a finding by the Commission that adequate market conditions exist and upon Atlanta Gas Light Company ceasing to provide merchant functions in that delivery group.."

AGLS still vowed to fight the ruling, saying it would "continue to support the consumers' right to know from whom they buy their gas as well as a company's right to use the name to which it is legally entitled..."

Rocco Canonica

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