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 off service.

“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 errors.”

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

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