Originally created 02/26/97

Gas bill wins OK in Senate



ATLANTA - The Georgia Senate unanimously approved a natural gas deregulation bill Tuesday that proponents say will produce lower bills for all customers, though only big industries are protected against near-term rate increases.

If approved by the House, the bill would dismantle Atlanta Gas Light's virtual monopoly on gas supply and delivery in Georgia, leaving the existing utility as a pipe company.

A new Atlanta Gas marketing subsidiary would then compete with other marketers to sell the commodity. The only competing gas supply and delivery company currently is United Cities Gas Company.

The deregulation bill is being pushed by Atlanta Gas Light, which is also known as Georgia Natural Gas and Savannah Gas Co., and is also supported by a coalition of industrial gas users.

Sen. Edward Boshears, R-Brunswick, pressed deregulation sponsors on how the measure would affect "the little old lady ... in a trailer, on Social Security and a fixed income."

The rates for residential customers will "actually decrease," said the bill's chief sponsor, Senate President Pro-tempore Sonny Perdue, D-Bonaire.

Customers can expect more fluctuation in their bills if Mr. Perdue's legislation passes, since the Public Service Commission will no longer cap gas rates. However, sponsors say it will take months, if not years, for the average homeowner to begin getting solicitations from new competitors.

The measure would declare the market "deregulated" when it can be shown 18 percent of sales are no longer monopolized by Atlanta Gas and its affiliates.

The bill passed the Senate 51-0 with few questions and little debate.

"I think we've got a great product," Mr. Perdue said.

He worked with House and Senate leaders on the bill throughout last year after another bill to deregulate the industry failed.

PSC members remain concerned about this year's deregulation attempt, citing provisions that would: require residential customers to bear all of the gas company's overhead costs; levy a surcharge against customers for a fund that would repay companies for uncollectable accounts; and still allow a competitive advantage for Atlanta Gas.

Commission members refrained from comment Tuesday, saying they were in negotiations with Atlanta Gas in hopes of amending the bill once it reaches the House.

Mr. Perdue has said the PSC is not accurate in its complaints and told the Senate Tuesday that the commission will retain authority over the industry even after deregulation.

The PSC will determine when the market is competitive, authorize companies to do business in Georgia, and then intercede with regulations if the board determines the system is not working, he said. A market will not be competitive unless at least five companies per service area are vying for business, under the measure.

"They can re-regulate if the market is not effective," Mr. Perdue said. "The PSC will determine who is allowed to do what things in Georgia ... the PSC has total discretion in determining this thing and pulling the plug."