The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Natural gas rate increase draws fire
HARTFORD — Consumer advocates are demanding Eversource drop a requested 16 percent rate increase for natural gas, noting the electric company is already reaping profits from new federal tax breaks and doesn’t need a costly price hike.
"Eversource is on notice: if they persist in this unconscionable, massive rate increase I will help consumers in opposing it," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, referring to a rate case before the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.
"Consumers are watching and cannot afford this rate hike," Blumenthal said. "Eversource has reaped millions in federal tax breaks and has no justifiable reason for yet another sweeping rate hike."
Eversource is requesting a 15.9 percent hike in natural gas rates over the next three years that would cost consumers $49 million more in the first year.
"The public policy behind the rate request is wrong for ratepayers and wrong for the company over the longer term," said Tom Swan, director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.
"We call on Eversource to rethink this strategy and do the right thing," Swan said.
In a statement, Eversource said the overall $86 million rate increase has already been reduced because of the federal tax cuts.
“Thanks to the changes in tax law, we’ve reduced our total request by more than $44 million,” said Mitch Gross, an Eversource spokesman. “It’s important to note our request is to further strengthen the natural gas distribution system and continue to provide our customers top-tier reliability.”
Gross said the extra money is earmarked for replacing existing cast iron and bare steel gas main lines with newer plastic pipe, which he said is safer, more durable and better able to handle fluctuations in underground temperatures.
“These investments minimize repairs and service interruptions, so our customers have the energy they need for every moment of their lives,” Gross said.
Eversource’s gas customer base has increased over nine percent since 2011.
Blumenthal said Connecticut consumers already pay the 10th-highest natural gas rates in the nation and said recent rate increases approved by PURA for the Connecticut Natural Gas Co. and the Southern Connecticut Natural Gas Co. were less than a third of Eversource’s request.
He said the millions in annual tax breaks handed to Eversource from the massive tax cut recently approved by Congress more than offset the need for another rate increase to improve gas lines.
Chris Phelps, director of the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group, also said the rate hike is unnecessary.
"This proposed rate increase is really unconscionable and outrageous," Phelps said.
"We know as a state and a nation that we have to shift off fossil fuels toward zero carbon energy resources," Phelps said. "When utilities are trying to invest in new infrastructure and stick consumers with the cost, that’s a burden that will become an albatross around ratepayers and our economy."