Originally created 02/17/99

Natural gas providers warned: Keep rates simple



ATLANTA -- Companies selling natural gas in Georgia got a warning Tuesday from the chairman of the state utilities regulation agency not to use complicated pricing to snooker consumers.

"I challenged marketers to keep rates simple," said Stan Wise, chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission. "Customers shouldn't be burdened by complicated equations."

Mr. Wise issued a veiled threat when he said he didn't want to require natural-gas marketers to file copies of their price schedules and promotional offers with the commission.

"I don't believe this agency has any expertise in marketing," he said.

The Republican frequently reminds listeners he philosophically favors free markets with little government regulation, but he worries that confusion about the first stage of natural-gas deregulation foretells bigger problems.

The next stage comes when the PSC randomly assigns customers to gas retailers. That begins about nine months after the PSC determines that customers representing a third of the gas sold in each region have switched to someone other than Atlanta Gas Light or its subsidiary, Georgia Natural Gas.

Of the state's nine regions, information released this week by the PSC shows customers in the Carrollton/Newnan zone are leading the state with 27.3 percent having switched, followed by Augusta with 26.3 percent, Macon with 25.2 percent and the Gainesville/Athens market with 23.2 percent. Savannah, with 16.0 percent and Brunswick with 12.9 percent, have been the slowest to switch.

To simplify people's research for a new company, Atlanta Gas shared its records last week on customer gas usage with the 19 companies permitted to market gas. Having that information, the companies can prepare customized quotes so customers can compare their likely costs between companies.

On Monday, SCANA put a program on its Web site that prepares customized quotes for consumers

Walter Jones is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.