Information technology is transforming just about every aspectof the energy industry, even the Federal Energy RegulatoryCommission, speakers at an INGAA Foundation conference in Houstonnoted Thursday. Oliver G. “Rick” Richard, CEO of Columbia EnergyGroup, said soon “time margin” will become nearly as critical ayardstick as profit margin for measuring company performance.

By time margin Richard means how quickly companies can performvarious functions relative to the industry. Richard recalled thedebate that preceded the unbundling of interstate pipelines.Skeptics said it couldn’t be done because there was no way tohandle the nominations and allocations of multiple shippers.

“But generally we can now see what a great success story thathas been, that the federal government has taken a leadership rolein unbundling pipelines and all the efficiencies. If you take arange of numbers at least put out by one CEO in our business, therehas been at least $100 to $300 billion of costs that were taken outof the system. It’s a tremendous thing that’s happened in the lastyears, a lot of which now goes to the battle of how can youcomplete those transactions even faster, both at wholesale andretail.”

Richard said he believes the Internet will become a principaltool of commerce. Columbia already has 29 Web sites set up tomarket its deregulated products state by state once the opportunitybecomes available. That’s in addition to the company’s corporateWeb site and sites for each of its five local distributioncompanies. Information technology, particularly the Internet, iskey to unbundling, both from a gas supplier and an end userperspective, Richard said.

“We need to provide a system that’s so easy that consumers canchoose and suppliers can choose without viewing the process as aburden, and information technology can easily make it easy as read,point and click, and that’s what our ultimate goal is.”

On the regulatory side, the FERC has embraced informationtechnology development in concert with its FERC First reengineeringprogram. A year ago the Commission hired Kathleen M. Hirning as atechnology consultant. In February she became the FERC’s firstchief information officer. Hirning is now working to bringelectronic filing capability to the FERC. At a conference lastNovember, the Commission heard an industry chorus that said, “Doit. Do it now. Do it as quickly as you can do it,” Hirning said. Toallow FERC’s constituents to eventually make filingselectronically, Hirning is streamlining and centralizing technologyand document handling functions within the FERC.

“What I discovered as far as technology is, although there was acomputer department, each of these [FERC] departments had their ownindividual computer department. And although there weresimilarities between how each department processed their filingsand issues, they were all done separately and differently. Therewere a lot of good ideas about where the Commission should go, whatthe Commission should do, but it was all very fragmented becausethere were different ideas in different locations of theCommission.” Hirning predicted within about a year preparationswill begin for a rulemaking on electronic filing.

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