GPSC Passes Controversial Emergency Rules

The Georgia Public Service Commission (GPSC) last week unanimously voted out two orders, one that offers customers the option of changing gas marketers monthly and one that prohibits gas disconnections for residential customers until April 1. A third order, which will allow customers to change marketers even if they have outstanding debt with their previous marketer, squeaked by on a three to two vote with Commissioner Stan Wise˜and newly appointed Chairman Lauren "Bubba" McDonald dissenting.

"You can game the system that way," said McDonald. "The initial reason for it [the emergency rule] was so that a customer could not get locked in with a high priced marketer, and not be able to go back and choose." McDonald said he felt it was not right that as a consumer "you could just keep gaming it right on down, even though you may have three marketers that you have past-dues with for whatever the reason."

Under the third order, residential gas consumers would be able to switch marketers once a month as long as the option is processed before the 20th of the month, which coincides with the cut-off date established in Atlanta Gas Light Co.'s commission approved tariffs. Even though consumers would not have to pay their old marketer before they switched, they would still be obligated to pay the marketer back at some point, the commission said. McDonald said marketers voiced their reservations about its action.

Richard Schrum, spokesman for SCANA Energy Marketing, said, "Obviously we were disappointed by the commission's ruling. Our principle concern is two-fold, one, is we think it will result in less competition because it could potentially put several of the smaller marketers out of business if customers are allowed not to pay their bills or transfer to another marketer without paying their bills. Also, we have some concerns that our customers that are actually paying their bills would be subsidizing those that may be trying to avoid paying."

Schrum said that AGL will not be able to provide marketers with any information related to individual customers, such as notices of past due balances with other marketers. Under the current setup, delinquent customers would be able to switch to other marketers with virtual anonymity.

AGL told the commission that it currently has 8,414 orders to shut off for non payment. and 45,565 accounts that are blocked from changing marketers out of its 1.5 million customers. AGL spokesman Nick Gold said that marketers will have some recourse. "A marketer has the ability that when they find out what your credit history is in terms of paying bills, they then have the right to charge whatever they deem is appropriate as a deposit for insurance," said Gold.

As part of the ruling, residential consumers who choose to switch more than once in a 12 month period would have to pay a switching fee of $7.50. All three emergency rules will remain in effect for a period of 60 days, at which point they will be reevaluated by the GPSC.

"They really did not take our advice, but we are in a position where we support the commission, and we will work with them however we can to enforce these rulings," said Gold. "We will certainly follow the letter of the law of what they passed for these emergency rules for the˜next 60 days, but it just puts a real hardship on not only us, but on the marketers as well."

McDonald, who replaces Commissioner Bob Durden as chairman, will serve a one-year term, with Wise serving as vice-chairman. The chairman also announced that he has appointed Robert B. Baker Jr. to head up the commission's energy committee.

Alex Steis

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