Georgia lawmakers are going to light some matches over natural gas, so watch for the inevitable explosion.
The issue is deregulation, a continuation of the federal effort to open the natural gas industry to competition. A House-Senate committee heard from several interested parties last year - including the state Public Service Commission, which regulates the industry, consumer lobbyists and large manufacturers who have formed a potent lobby to help them get a favorable bill.
The most surprising proposal, however, came from Atlanta Gas Light Co. and its affiliates, Georgia Natural Gas and Savannah Gas Co. They've been a tightly regulated (and profitable) monopoly. To be sure, they still want to make big profits, but not by trying to cling to their monopoly status.
The company is proposing a radical restructuring. It would get out of the supply business altogether, becoming solely a deliverer of natural gas through its network of pipelines. Customers, be they homes, businesses or factories, would buy gas from independent suppliers offering the best price.
This plan, more than any other, keeps the faith with the federal deregulation program. But there are a lot of chefs, besides Atlanta Gas Light, with their hands in the stew. Soon, when Senate Majority Leader Sonny Perdue, D-Bonaire, submits his gas deregulation bill, Georgians will get a better idea of where lawmakers are headed.
The issue is likely to get very complex and heated with so many special interests involved. But here's what ordinary consumers can do to ensure deregulation won't give them gas pains: Insist lawmakers open the door to more service options for all customers, not just large industrial users.