Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Natural Gas Fight Erupts in Georgia Energy Firms Battle Non-Profit Co-Op Plan

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Natural Gas Fight Erupts in Georgia Energy Firms Battle Non-Profit Co-Op Plan

Article excerpt

Byline: Walter C. Jones, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- A handful of Georgia companies want to sell natural gas on a non-profit basis, but several large energy companies are lobbying legislators to put out the fire.

The 42 Georgia electric membership corporations are pushing a bill in the General Assembly that would let them market natural gas the same way they peddle power. EMCs are cooperatives, sharing their profits among customers who become members. Now, five or six want to sell gas the same way.

They were created by the federal Rural Electrification Act in the 1930s as a way to get power to areas that didn't have a large enough concentration of customers to attract for-profit power companies. To encourage EMCs to pop up and make electricity affordable in the countryside, Congress entitled them to low-cost loans and a free pass on income taxes. Plus, the state gave each cooperative a region where they could hold a monopoly.

It's the bargain loans and tax exemption that rile other energy companies, including those marketing natural gas, electricity and propane. Lobbyists from each industry addressed the House Industry Committee yesterday.

"Any changes in the law that create an unfair playing field would be a concern of ours," said Tom Wicker, lobbyist for Georgia Power Co.

Committee Chairman Newt Hudson made his position clear.

"I'm going to come down real heavy on the side of the consumer," said the Rochelle Democrat.

He noted that people have called his office and those of other lawmakers by the hundreds to complain about various practices of the for-profit gas companies operating in the state. If those companies had done a better job of billing and pricing, there wouldn't be an outcry for more competition, he added.

Ronnie Lee, chief executive officer of Walton EMC, said his customers are asking for them to supply gas. The Monroe-based company, which serves parts of Clarke, Oconee, Gwinnett and seven other counties, had 25,000 of its 95,000 customers sign up for gas through the EMC's partnership with Peachtree Natural Gas, he said, because of their confidence in Walton EMC. …

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