Ample supply of natural gas to lower most heating bills this winter

| Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011

Heating costs for homeowners using natural gas will be lower or stable this fall, a comforting thought as Western Pennsylvania heads into a chilly weekend.

Equitable Gas set its quarterly rate for the fuel at $6.51 per thousand cubic feet, or mcf, starting today. That's down from $7.35 a year ago and $14.45 from fall 2008, when natural gas costs shocked homeowners.

"Right now, our customers are saving $663 a year, compared to the prices three years ago," spokesman Scott Waitlevertch said. "There is plenty of supply going into the winter heating season. Customers are benefiting because we have access to Marcellus shale gas and other gas."

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania's rate of $5.52 per mcf is down 29 percent from a year ago. Peoples Natural Gas Co. set its rate at $5.52, or 3 cents more than a year ago.

For families struggling to pay heating bills as temperatures drop, "this can only be a good thing," said Karen Snair, executive director of the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches in Natrona Heights, which provides help to residents applying for heating assistance.

"The demand for our services is up because of the economy and the way everybody is being impacted by the lack of employment opportunities," she said. The association's shelter, which accommodates 14 people, filled two months ago, and 15 to 20 people call daily to ask about temporary housing, Snair said.

The weekend's weather forecast could cause people to turn on furnaces for the first time in months. Today's high temperatures will be in the upper 40s, falling to the upper 30s tonight, said meteorologist Lee Hendricks of the National Weather Service in Moon.

Sunday's highs will reach the mid-50s, and much of the weekend will be rainy and windy, Hendricks said.

Gas prices stayed "pretty consistent" since winter 2008, state Consumer Advocate Sonny Popowsky said, largely because of lower demand for the fuel in a slumping economy and greater supplies from gas production in the region's Marcellus shale formation and gas fields elsewhere. Domestic natural gas production increased 20 percent since 2006.

"I really hope this continues, the strong gas supply and low prices, because it benefits not just gas but electric customers," Popowsky said. Newer power plants that run on natural gas have lower operating costs than a few years ago, he said.

Equitable Gas customers will pay the North Shore-based utility an average $91.12 a month from October through December, compared with $99.29 a year ago. A typical Equitable residential customer uses 90 mcf a year. Natural gas utilities adjust prices every three months to reflect what they pay for the gas they sell to customers.

Peoples Gas customers will pay an average $82 a month, up from $71 a year ago, primarily because of a higher base rate for gas delivery that state regulators approved this summer, said Joe Gregorini, vice president of rates and regulatory affairs for the North Shore-based utility.

"This has been the trend. Prices have been relatively low and stable" with plenty of gas to meet winter demand, Gregorini said. The average Peoples customer uses 91 mcf a year.

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania said its average monthly bill will drop by almost $20 for a customer using about 86 mcf a year. Many customers could face higher bills than in the past six months because of a just-expired credit relating to a change in Columbia's billing procedures.

Peoples TWP, formerly the gas utility of T.W. Phillips Gas & Oil Co., changed its rate Aug. 1 to $5.87 per mcf, up from $5.72 a year ago. That utility runs separately from Peoples, although SteelRiver Infrastructure Partners owns both. Butler-based Peoples TWP has about 60,000 customers.

Additional Information:

Pricing changes

• Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania: Average monthly bill $75.64 starting today, down from $95.55 a year ago; 414,000 customers

• Equitable Gas: Average monthly bill $91.12, down from $99.29 a year ago; 257,000 customers

• Peoples Natural Gas Co.: Average monthly bill $82, up from $71 a year ago, mainly because of base rate hike; 359,000 customers

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