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Natural gas costs may reach records this winter, commissioners warn

BISMARCK -- North Dakotans heating with natural and propane gas could be in for record costs this coming winter, state officials warned Wednesday.

"What's happening in natural gas prices this summer is truly frightening," said Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark after the commission took official notice of fuel cost increases that three utilities will be passing on to their customers with this or next month's bills.

Fellow commissioner Kevin Cramer said the commission and utility companies are "sounding the alarm about high home heating costs," which he believes may set records.

The commission on Wednesday discussed July purchase gas adjustments for natural gas from Xcel Energy and Great Plains Natural Gas Co., as well as a propane fuel cost adjustment for Montana-Dakota Utilities Co., all of which are increases. The commission doesn't act on the increases; the companies are allowed to pass on the cost of fuel to their customers without PSC action.

Companies and commissioners said part natural gas is increasingly being used nationally to generate electricity used to run air conditioners. That means less gas is stored for use this winter.

The federal Energy Department's Energy Information Administration also said U.S. imports of liquefied natural gas are below last year because the fuel is being shipped to European and Asia-Pacific market, which pay higher prices.

Natural gas and propane also become more expensive when oil rises in price, they said.

Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. spokesman Mark Hanson said natural gas prices are around 50 percent to 55 percent higher than this time last summer.

"It's kind of concerning to see where prices are heading," he said. An average homeowner can expect to pay $350 more this coming heating season than last winter, he said. The heating season is defined as November through March.

Great Plains, which serves Wahpeton, said gas will go up $2.35 per thousand cubic feet this month, to a total of $14.42 per thousand cubic feet.

Xcel Energy's July residential increase is $1.23 per dekatherm, to $12.14, or $3.75 higher than last summer.

And Montana-Dakota's propane is going up in August by 55 cents per dekatherm, to $19.61, which will cost residential customers an average of $1.10 more than last month and $16.90 more than last August.

Commissioner Susan Wefald noted that this month's prices are already higher than the natural gas price spike during the winter of 2006.

Xcel spokeswoman Bonnie Lund of Fargo said the company will continue to emphasize what customers can do to increase energy efficiency. The company has energy saving tips on the company Web site, Click on "residential" and then "save money and energy."

Xcel also pays rebates to customers who switch to a high-efficiency furnace.

She also said that the company subsidizes home energy audits that can tell customers where their homes are leaking heated or conditioned air, asking customers to pay $35 for a service that costs $150.

"We're seeing a high interest in our energy audit program," Lund said.

Hanson said Montana-Dakota Utilities is preparing a special direct-mail notice to customers that will warn them of the coming costly winter bills and suggesting they get on a balanced billing plan, get furnaces tuned up, regularly change furnace filters and invest in a set-back thermostat, among other steps.

Clark and Cramer used the occasion Wednesday to criticize Congress and the lack of a national energy policy.

Clark noted all the areas in and around the U.S. that are off limits to drilling for natural gas.

"There isn't a country on the face of the earth that handicaps itself" the way the U.S. does, he said.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.