More than a hundred people crowded into the Regulatory Commission of Alaska's hearing room Wednesday, to testify about the potential hardships they will face after a 48 percent increase in their bills from natural gas provider ENSTAR.
By 9 a.m. Wednesday the hearing room was packed, with dozens of people standing in the hallway outside awaiting an opportunity to speak.
“We're the poor people,” said Barbara Soule. “The Baby Boomers, of which I’m older than, are starting to retire and the stat is going to have more and more people who are going to live on fixed incomes. Something needs to change. If it’s possible and within your power, I would ask you to please make those changes.”
Lisa Maxon, a Petersburg native, said a recent injury changed her finances.
“Right now, (I’m) 55 years old, Baby Boomer, struggling severely in order to make ends meet and having to work three jobs in order to do that,” Maxon said. “So this jack-up in prices is really going to affect my life.”
Some who testified criticized ENSTAR, which asked the Regulatory Commission of Alaska for its approval on the increase back in May.
The utility said it’s trying to recoup the money it has to pay its natural gas producers after miscalculating its forecast for demand.
“Really, it's a matter of estimating forecast and demand,” said John Sims, ENSTAR’s business development director. “We're not dealing with perfect information, unfortunately. The one thing you can guarantee is that your estimates are always going to be wrong as far as what the weather is going to be.”
Residents say the utility’s explanation is confusing.
“It seemed like a lot of double talk to me,” said Carolyn Gardner during the hearing.
ENSTAR said it will not profit from increasing consumers’ rates.
“We're just looking to get to the exact cost that we're paying for gas and making sure that's being passed on to the consumers with no markup whatsoever,” said Sims, adding that the increase is a “gas cost adjustment”; not a “rate hike,” which he said implies the utility would be making a profit, which it is not allowed to do.
Consumers said whether it’s a “rate hike” or a “gas cost adjustment,” they have to foot the higher bill.
“This whip-sawing, you can't do it,” said Lynn Willis, an Anchorage resident who said he has tracked ENSTAR’s rate increases over the years. “I can just imagine when the school district gets its gas bill and as taxpayers, who's going to pay for that?”
ENSTAR President Colleen Starring said hundreds of customers have contacted the utility over the past few weeks.
“We’re committed to working with them,” Starring said during the hearing. “I really would consider the budget billing system for those customers that want to be able to plan and budget better to eliminate some of these swings in variability.”
Much of Wednesday’s testimony, however, was directed at RCA itself, which consumers said approved the increase before giving the public an adequate opportunity to weigh in.
“I was under the impression that you were here to protect the consumers from being gouged by unnecessary rate increases, but my assumption has been proven wrong,” Gardner said.
Anchorage resident Jerry McCutcheon described the RCA as a “personification of the case of the regulated regulating the regulators.”
“The RCA has been and still is the handmaiden of those that the RCA is supposed to regulate,” McCutcheon said. “The fact that the RCA is now holding a hearing on which the RCA has already approved ENSTAR the sole source contract for Cook Inlet Gas exemplifies RCA's disregard for the public interest and subversion of the public interest to the benefit of the monopolistic control of Cook Inlet gas market.”
RCA commissioners went on the defensive.
“To the extent that there was commentary directed at the commission, we have thick skins,” said RCA Commissioner T.W. Patch. “Your opinion is in error if you believe for a moment that this commission doesn't take its job seriously.”
There was at least one effort toward compromise near the end of the meeting when another RCA commissioner proposed a motion to investigate the commission’s own decision to approve the increase.
“Given the questions and the comments we’ve heard today, as well as the commission’s review of the issue in the last few weeks, I’m compelled now to offer a motion,” said RCA Commissioner Norman Rokeberg. “I move that the commission investigate the gas cost adjustment methodology of the ENSTAR Natural Gas Company.”
After commissioner discussed the issue for about 10 minutes, Rokeberg withdrew the motion.