OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The Oklahoma Corporation Commission and natural gas companies in the state want customers to know their natural gas bill is going up, and there's little that can be done about the increase.
At a meeting with consumer advocates Wednesday, Bill Eliason, vice president for gas strategy at Oklahoma Natural Gas, said the nearly 750,000 customers of the state's largest gas utility, should prepare for bills this winter that are 50 percent to 60 percent higher than a year ago.
For example, a person who paid $100 last December might face a bill of $150 to $160 this December.
Officials with Reliant Energy Arkla say their eastern Oklahoma customers could be paying as much as 76 percent more each month, and West Texas Gas is predicting a $20 increase in monthly payments.
Commission Chairman Bob Anthony said the greatest concern is for the elderly and those on fixed incomes.
"They need to know there are steps they can take," Anthony said. "They can request that the utility put them on bill averaging." Under the program, the utility averages the amount of gas a customer uses over a period of time and the customer pays that average each month. This would help prevent an extremely high gas bill that a customer on a limited budget might not be able to afford, Anthony said.
Eliason said many ONG customers already use that option.
Ken Zimmerman, a commission analyst, said the rapidly rising prices are the result of not developing the natural gas resources.
"There's probably enough gas to meet the needs of all Oklahomans, and the country as well, but it's in the ground,"
Eliason said drilling is increasing, due in large part to the rising prices. He said investors are now putting more money into exploration companies, and he believes that will result in more natural gas being made available, eventually leading to lower prices.
But consumer advocates are worried about how low- and fixed-income customers will pay their bills this winter. Wanda DeBruler of the Community Action Association told commissioners "if you're a single mom on a fixed income, when rates go up, Christmas goes down and the kids don't understand that."
"Many Oklahomans don't have a lot of disposable income and this will come as a shock to them," said Paul James of Common Cause of Oklahoma.
James blamed Energy Secretary Bill Richardson for failing to adopt an energy policy that would have prevented the high prices, a sentiment echoed by Commissioner Denise Bode.
"Tight gas supplies are a result of not drilling for two years," Bode said. "Our energy infrastructure is shot across the country." Bode also called on energy suppliers to begin meeting with consumer groups in an effort to develop programs to help needy customers pay their bills.
Bode said she's not necessarily interested in adopting new regulations, but in finding a way to bring energy producers and suppliers together with customers and consumer groups to discuss ways to keep prices affordable.
The commission is to meet with natural gas producers on Sept. 27 to discuss the problems they face in getting the gas to energy companies.