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Apollo Gas Loses Alberta License, Wrangles With LDC

Apollo Gas Loses Alberta License, Wrangles With LDC

Independent gas marketer Apollo Gas says it will appeal the Alberta government's decision to yank its license over consumer complaints about the manner in which it solicited business. The license was revoked effective April 1; however, the company has been issued a two-month conditional license so it can supply gas to existing customers until May 31. After that, Apollo may sell its contracts "at the agreed-upon price" to another marketer or allow each account to revert back to the customer's original utility.

Apollo came on the scene in September 1998, said Rob Phillips, director of consumer programs for Alberta Government Services. "Almost from day one we received a fairly high number of phone calls and letters of complaint, and we worked closely with the company." He said there were a high number of calls from customers who said they were misled into signing Apollo contracts. Other complainants said they thought they were dealing with the area utility, Atco Gas, or they didn't realize savings with Apollo. The complaints centered on the company's controversial door-to-door marketing campaign, which was recently abandoned.

While an Alberta government news release says Apollo has 45,000 customers, Apollo President Gordon Jarvis says the number is more like 30,000. The company was selling five-year, fixed-price contracts, mainly to residentials in Alberta. It also has about 25,000 customers in Ontario, most of them commercial.

"We don't try to tell consumers whether these contracts are a good deal or not... The consumer has to make that judgment call. Our concern was that the representation that this was going to save you money. Those are things that no one can guarantee because no one knows what the price of gas is three, four or five years from now."

Jarvis, who joined Apollo in December, said he tried working with the provincial government to improve but got little cooperation. "Through this process the reports that we were getting in our regular contacts with Government Services were that things were a lot better. Up until last week, we were told there should be no difficulty getting our license renewed." Jarvis said the company has 30 days from the date of the decision to appeal the license revocation, and a panel to review the case must be appointed within 30 days after that.

Although Jarvis sounds steadfast in his determination to appeal the license revocation, the company faces trouble on another front. Local distribution company Atco Gas has decided to stop providing billing services to the marketer. Atco President Chris Sheard said his company's apparent affiliation with Apollo resulted in "hundreds rising to thousands per day" of calls to Atco's customer assistance number. "And the phone calls coming into our call center from our customers were clearly highlighting to us that customers perceived us to be part of the problem. If we were allowing Apollo to use our bills, then clearly we must be in cahoots with them."

Asked why his company is being set free to do its own billing, Jarvis said he doesn't know. "The only thing that Atco will tell me is that gas marketers went into the province and started giving Atco a bad name. Therefore, they don't want to be associated with them. Their name is very important to them, and that's it, 'go away.'" At one time Atco had a marketing affiliate but has since shut it down.

Apollo is working with Atco to gather the information it needs to set up its own billing system. However, if it is successful in regaining its license, any billing system likely will only remain in place until next year when electric deregulation takes hold in Alberta. The province's electric legislation specifies that marketers are responsible for billing for commodity and transportation, and the same rules are likely to apply to gas. That's about the only thing Jarvis and Sheard agree on.

Joe Fisher, Houston

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