Skyrocketing fuel prices hurting utility customers

by Jeff Ferrell

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - As if prices at the pump don't hurt enough, many utility bills these days just add insult to injury.  In fact, it's the very factor that's generated all the excitement over the Haynesville Shale that's hurting some power customers the most.

It all boils down to the price of natural gas.  Companies like CLECO and Entergy are seeing the highest jumps in fuel charges because their plants rely heavily on natural gas.  And those extra costs go directly to their customers.

SWEPCO customers pay on average 10-dollars more in fuel charges than a year ago, based on information provided by District-5 Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell.  Some of those customers feel squeezed in every direction, "especially with rent, mortgage payments, people losing homes, car payments.  So, I'm just trying to make it," described customer Sammye Johnson.

A problem with a coal-fired SWEPCO plant in East Texas this spring forced the company to buy more expensive natural gas to compensate for loss of that production.  That problem is now over.  So, Campbell expects SWEPCO fuel charge rates to begin to drop again.

2-1-1 Program Coordinator Luease Graham said Centerpoint Community Services receives at least 20-calls every day from people unable to pay their soaring utility bills, among others.  

Probably the number one piece of advice Graham gives is to act quickly if you get behind, especially for a disconnect notice.  Graham instructed, "Call 2-1-1 before that happens and we can pretty much try to work with the utility company and they always work with us to keep everybody afloat."

Commissioner Campbell wants to create the same kind of 'Lifeline' program for electric and natural gas bills as the state already implemented for phone service.  It sets a low, fixed rate for the poor and elderly.  "And I would ask that the legislature and I'd ask Bobby Jindal to, you got a billion dollar surplus, whatchya gonna do with it?"

Campbell said the commission will send a letter to Governor Jindal explaining that this Lifeline program is no giveway, but instead an essential service.  "You have to realize that the state of Louisiana has more poor people living here than any other state in America."

Campbell concluded that if all goes according to plan, that Lifeline program could begin to help reduce the electric and natural gas bills for the poor and elderly before the first frost in late October.