March 11, 2014 10:16:05 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
The Energy Information Administration reports that natural gas burns 30 percent more cleanly than petroleum and 45 percent more than coal, but the cleaner energy isn't an option for many rural Mississippi residents.
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley wants to remedy that. On Monday he called for local natural gas providers, including Atmos Energy and Center Point Energy, to file plans with the PSC within 60 days to make natural gas available to underserved areas.
Presley said his office is using an increased amount of complaints from citizens to identify the underserved areas.
"We've had an uptick this year in complaints from citizens saying they want natural gas service but it either doesn't come down their road or it's not available in their neighborhood," Presley said. "We want to look at that from a broad sense and look at the feasibility of serving these areas that are already within the franchise territory of Atmos and Center Point but also areas that may be in any gas suppliers' franchise territory."
Atmos Energy is the largest natural gas distributor in Mississippi and has about 3 million customers in eight states. Center Point Energy delivers the service to 3.2 million customers in six states.
Presley said while the problem is not isolated to rural areas, there are other more populous areas that lack the necessary infrastructure to accommodate natural gas service.
"There are places within cities that don't have natural gas in the city limits of some towns in Mississippi. That is a concern," Presley said. "It's not always the most remote areas. Maybe there's not been the infrastructure put in place to get gas to those customers. We want to look at what the low hanging fruit is of getting this fixed. They don't have to choose natural gas. If they want to stick with whatever energy source they're using, that's fine, but we want to make sure they at least have that option. It's the same way you have electricity in the most rural nooks and crannies in Mississippi. We need to have natural gas in those same rural nooks and crannies."
Identifying the most feasible funding mechanisms will be a significant factor in his effort's success, Presley said.
"What is the company willing to put in? What can be done from a broad perspective? This is a question that has never been asked before," he said. "I felt it was time we do it based on the calls we've gotten over the winter from people who want natural gas in their home. Secondly, I think it's important that the more options we can give and make available to Mississippi homes and businesses, the more we're going to allow those people to save in their family or business budget. This would be optional, but you can't hook on to natural gas if the line isn't close to your house."
As for the deadline he gave providers, Presley said he wants less talking and more doing.
"I'm tired of talking about doing something to bring natural gas to rural areas," he said. "Get us a plan, and if the plan doesn't work and doesn't meet the public interest, we'll come up with something else, but let's do something to bring these services out here. If you don't set a deadline, you'll never do anything done. We've talked about this for a long time and I thought it was time to put a date on it."
Robert Lesley, Public Affairs Director for Atmos Energy's Mississippi division, said the provider has spoken with Presley and will submit its plan within the deadline. Part of the plan, Lesley said, will be working to more closely identify the areas near Atmos territory that still don't have access to natural gas.
Pilot programs are operating in select rural areas near the provider's service territory, he said.
"We are looking forward to working with Commissioner Presley and the Public Service Commission on this project," Lesley said. "We're going to file the plan within the commission's time frame We're working on the details right now."
Presley takes national post
Presley was recently named chairman of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' Committee on Consumer Affairs. The committee analyzes the role state PSC's play in protecting consumer interests, including energy industries.
He said he looks to use the new post to help Mississippi consumers.
"It is a committee dedicated to looking at how utility services and rates impact consumers and what are the issues out there related to consumer protection," Presley said. "I look forward to advancing so many of those issues and focusing our community's on work on where the rubber meets the road, and that is with consumer affairs and consumers that are paying the bills."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.