Bowing to unrelenting upward pressure on wholesale natural gas prices, the Oregon Public Utility Commission Thursday approved sizable retail rate increases for the state’s three major private-sector natural gas utilities, ranging from 13.5% to 26.8%.

For the largest retail gas utility, Northwest Natural Gas, residential customers face average hikes of 15.2%, and commercial/industrial users will see increases between 16.6% and 18.5% in scope, according to a PUC announcement. Avista Utilities natural gas customers face increases of 21.9% (residential) and between 25.1% and 26.8% (commercial/industrial). Cascade Natural Gas customers will see increases in the range of 13.5% for residential and between 15.6% and 16.5% for commercial/industrial users.

“The annual Purchased Gas Adjustment (PGA) passes through rate changes to customers when prices go up and when they go down,” a PUC spokesperson said. “It also accounts for differences from the purchased cost of gas in the previous year with actual costs.”

Oregon regulators based their actions partially on data that showed wholesale natural gas prices on the Nymex as of Sept. 13 are 56% higher than they were a year earlier, the PUC spokesperson said. “The price of a MMBtu delivered to the Northwest between November 2005 and March 2006 was $12 on Sept. 13, compared to $7.50 at the same time in 2004.”

Oregon PUC Chairman Lee Beyer said the “same factors that kept prices high on wholesale gas markets a year ago remain today — high demand and relatively short supply.” He noted one glimmer of hope in Oregon is the fact that the three gas utilities made most of their major purchases for the upcoming winter before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

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