UTICA — When Andrea Martin of Utica opened her mail on Oct. 2 she got a big — and shocking — surprise. A letter informed her that in order to maintain her gas service, she was required to switch from Columbia Gas of Ohio to Consumers Gas Cooperative. She had to make the switch by Nov. 2 or lose her gas service.
The letter was the result of a request by Columbia Gas and CGC to transfer approximately 3,500 customers from Columbia to CGC.
This upset Martin for a number of reasons. The first, she said, was she had no choice in the matter, and was satisfied with the service she received from Columbia. Second, she felt the service offered by CGC is not up to that offered by Columbia.
“I found the letter not very reassuring that I would be putting my gas service into capable hands,” she said.
Martin said she was concerned that CGC did not offer a budget plan to help customers afford their heating bills in the winter heating season. Another concern is that CGC does not have a toll-free customer service phone number. Finally, she said, CGC does not offer a natural gas Choice program, although she did not take advantage of this with Columbia.
“I was very satisfied with Columbia Gas and would prefer to stay with their service,” Martin stated in a letter to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. “Because of [the PUCO ruling], I am being forced into serious budget concerns and being able to keep my family afloat through the next few months. There is no comparison between the two companies. CGC rates may be a bit lower [than Columbia Gas] but they cannot provide anything else that Columbia Gas can provide to the public.”
“The commission looked at the actual application made by Columbia Gas and Consumers Gas Cooperative,” said Shana Eiselstein, spokeswoman for PUCO. “Based on the consideration of the application they realized that Columbia was not abandoning the service or the facilities, and that there is no interruption of service to customers. These customers will continue to be served by the same pipelines at the same rates currently being served.
“The commission found that the application as filed was reasonable,” she continued. “[The commission] was satisfied that consumers would be able to have both the financial and managerial abilities to make sure that service is not interrupted, and that those customers continue to receive adequate service.”
CGC serves 1,375 customers; the transfer would add up to 3,500 new customers. Ray Frank, spokesman for NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas of Ohio, said it was purely a business decision to transfer these customers.
“These customers are spread out across multiple counties in southern and eastern Ohio, in rural areas for the most part,” he explained. “And they are spread very far apart. With Consumers Cooperative it was determined customers would benefit from efficiencies with that organization. These customers are considered rural tap customers, meaning that their gas service is obtained from pipelines that are not owned and operated by Columbia Gas of Ohio.”
Frank pointed out that Columbia Gas has an extensive network of pipelines in Mount Vernon to serve its customers here. That is not the case with the customers affected by the transfer to CGC.
“In these cases, we were at the mercy of whoever owned the lines,” Frank said.
In a letter dated Oct. 8, Joe Komara, director of marketing and facility development for CGC, attempted to answer questions posed by Martin. Komara told Martin that CGC rates have been equal to or lower than Columbia’s for at least the last five years, that CGC has service technicians in service areas on a daily basis for fast action in emergencies and the company has a 24/7 emergency line answered by a human being.
He acknowledged there was no set budget plan, but said CGC would work with customers having problems paying their winter bills. He also confirmed Customer Choice is not available to CGC members, but said CGC rates have been lower than any fixed Choice price currently offered. He also said rules and regulations concerning the delivery of gas on a best efforts basis and the use of alternative fuels does exist on the Columbia Gas tariff.
Although the notice of transfer states that members make their own meter readings and send those readings in with their monthly payment, Komara said the new customers will not have to do that.
“Current CGC members have been [doing that], but we are in the process of upgrading our meters — and Columbia has already done this in some instances — with lithium batteries that emit a signal for up to 300 yards,” Komara explained. “That increases the accuracy. We are in the process [of staffing this].”
The signal can be read from passing trucks and will transmit the meter reading electronically.
Komara said CGC is in the business of selling natural gas, not refusing to sell it. He said it was unfortunate that the changeover was occurring at the beginning of winter, but said that even though CGC does not have a formal budget payment plan at this time, it is willing to work with any member to help get payments made and keep the gas turned on.
Komara said there are 179 customers in Licking County and 178 customers in Knox County who will be transferred.
Eiselstein said CGC is a cooperative; as such, it is not a public utility and not subject to PUCO regulation, at least as far as rates are concerned. CGC is, however, bound by federal and state regulations concerning safety and transportation issues. She also noted that being a cooperative, CGC customers are members of the cooperative and could attend meetings and help determine the cooperative’s policies.