The Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) on Tuesday approved a substantial decrease in retail natural gas utility rates, effective Sunday, following earlier filings by Portland-based NW Natural for a 16% rate drop, its lowest rates in five years, and similar large decreases for the state’s two other major private-sector gas utilities — Spokane, WA-based Avista Utilities and Seattle-based Cascade Natural Gas Co.

The PUC lowered the rates even below some of the initial filing estimates by the utilities, noting that a continuing drop in demand for natural gas had driven down wholesale prices even further.

With the weak economy, Oregon PUC Chairman Lee Beyer said hopefully consumers would be able to put the savings to good use, characterizing residential decreases as varying from 13.2% to 20.7%, and commercial rate drops ranging from 15.3% to 23.5%.

By utility, the PUC said the rate declines are as follows:

“Prices have fallen because demand for natural gas has dropped off due to the economy, and new drilling technology has opened up access to domestic gas fields that were previously out of reach,” Beyer said.

NW Natural said it also has filed with Washington state regulators for a 22% rate decrease for its customers in the Vancouver, WA, area, and it expected a decision from the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission this Thursday.

Regarding the Oregon PUC approval, NW Natural Gas Supply Director Randy Friedman said the decrease “is even lower than the initial filing in August because we were able to lock in additional cost savings during the last two months.”

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