Natural Gas Rates to Stabilize through October

Article excerpt

Byline: Scott Maben The Register-Guard

Following rate increases in September and October, NW Natural gas customers can expect stable prices for at least the next year.

The Portland-based utility, which serves more than 31,000 Eugene-Springfield customers, has locked in wholesale prices for more than 90 percent of the gas it expects to buy through next October, said Randy Friedman, the company's gas supply manager.

"We're in good shape," Friedman said.

NW Natural raised rates 2.6 percent Sept. 1 to cover increasing business costs, such as employee pay and health care. That was the first such increase since 1989.

Another rate increase, averaging 3.5 percent for residential customers, kicked in Oct. 1 to cover higher wholesale gas costs this year.

In 2004, NW Natural also plans a series of small rate increases, totaling 1.75 percent, to pay for pipeline construction projects nearing completion in Coos County and the Portland area.

With all three increases, the estimated monthly bill for the average residential customer - using 62 therms a month - will go up $4.22, to $63.17.

The rates are locked in until next Oct. 1 and probably won't increase headed into next winter, Friedman said.

"I'm not anticipating much of a change next Oct. 1," he said.

The wholesale gas market has been volatile for more than three years, since the start of the West Coast energy crisis. Prices have fluctuated wildly in that time; currently, they are about twice what they were for most of the 1990s.

Last winter, cold weather in the Northeast drew down gas reserves and fueled fears of supply shortages, resulting in some price spikes. Prices have come down about 25 percent since last spring, when gas storage hit historic lows. …