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Natural gas utilities set to bill customers for pipeline repairs

| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Western Pennsylvania's four major natural gas utilities plan to add surcharges to customers' bills soon under the state's new faster-track process to pay for pipeline repair work.

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, the only local utility to seek regulators' approval so far, said its surcharge would amount to 62 cents a month for an average household customer using 73 therms of gas.

The proposed fee known as a distribution system improvement charge, or DSICs, could take effect March 3, if the Public Utility Commission approves it.

The company, with 415,000 customers in 26 counties, asked for a 1.9 percent surcharge, although the PUC could OK a lower rate, spokesman Russell Bedell said on Friday.

Peoples Natural Gas Co. and sister company Peoples TWP plan to file proposals for the surcharges in coming days, said Joe Gregorini, vice president of rates and regulatory affairs.

At Equitable Gas, “we're putting those numbers together, and we may be filing for a DSIC” in the next couple of weeks, spokesman Scott Waitlevertch said. Neither Peoples nor Equitable would disclose specifics of what their customers might pay in surcharges.

Columbia and other Pennsylvania utilities lobbied for the ability to recover costs to replace infrastructure — such as old cast iron or unprotected steel pipelines — more quickly, and without going through traditional rate cases that can cost more than $1 million in legal and other costs.

Gov. Tom Corbett signed state Act 11 into law in February. The new law's intent is to encourage more infrastructure work, by allowing utilities to charge customers for work that occurred in the prior three-month period. Water utilities already had the ability to impose those surcharges.

Columbia's surcharge, for instance, would recoup part of the $29 million the company is spending from January through March to install modern pipelines that improve flow and are less likely to leak, Bledel said. The company accelerated line replacement work in 2007 and plans to spend an average $131.5 million through 2017, up from around $78 million annually in recent years.

Equitable, with 257,000 customers, plans to spend $23.7 million in 2013 on pipeline work, up from $18.6 million.

Peoples Natural Gas, with 359,000 customers, is looking to double pipeline work to about $63 million a year, Gregorini said, while the smaller TWP company, the former T.W. Phillips Gas in Butler, also could double spending to $12 million.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or kleonard@tribweb.com.

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