HOUSTON – Viewers reached out to KPRC 2 Investigates after they received a new fee for their natural gas bill. The new fee is to offset expenses the natural gas company incurred during the winter storm. But for some, it means an extra $1,000 over the next 18 months.
Norman Miller is a Conroe resident and a customer of Unigas, a natural gas provider. He and his wife Sherry recently received a bill almost four times higher than what they normally pay.
“This is crazy. I can’t afford to pay that,” said Miller. “I’m retired. I draw a social security check.”
The Miller’s natural gas bill went from an average of $30 a month to more than $120 a month.
Unigas was taking on what it calls a “Weather Event Installment Fee.” It’s to make up for the elevated prices Unigas was forced to pay on the open market when the winter storm caused a natural gas shortage.
Miller wonders why Unigas didn’t stock up on natural gas in advance of the storm so they wouldn’t run out and have to pay the elevated prices.
“If I screw up in my personal life, I correct it myself,” said Miller. “I don’t ask somebody else to bail me out.”
Chris O’Brien, a Lake Jackson resident, received a similar bill from his natural gas provider.
“I don’t think all the citizens should have to fork over 10 times the normal amount,” said O’Brien.
His provider is the city of Brazoria.
O’Brien and his family power their furnace, water heater and fireplace with natural gas. They say their normal monthly bill is relatively low.
“I’ve lived here 30 years and our average bill probably doesn’t exceed $30,” said O’Brien.
But his most recent month bill skyrocketed almost 20 times higher to $582.
“The city says they had a variable rate contract for gas, and during the week of that storm, gas prices went through the roof,” O’Brien said. “I think they’re making us pay for a stupid move they made.”
According to the Railroad Commission of Texas, state law does allow a utility to recover its costs through its rates.
What can customers do to protect themselves?
1. Follow legislation in Austin
Adrian Shelley with Public Citizen, a consumer rights group, says House Bill 3460, the Power Act, which is under consideration in Austin right now, could greatly help.
HB 3460: Relating to the creation of a grant program to provide direct financial assistance to certain residents of this state who were affected by the winter disaster of 2021.
“What the Power Act will do is it will take money from the state’s rainy day fund for direct payments to consumers on the order of $1,000 to $2,500 per consumer,” said Shelley.
As of April 22, 2021, HB 3460 is still in committee.
HB1520: Relating to the recovery and securitization of certain extraordinary costs incurred by certain gas utilities; providing authority to issue bonds and impose fees and assessments.
House Bill 1520 is a bill that would issue relief bonds to reduce the amount of money gas customers have to pay, immediately each month. Instead, it would spread the payments out over several years. The gas providers, like Unigas, would immediately be able to offset their expenses from bonds. The bonds would need to be paid back.
As of April 22, 2021, HB 1520 was approved by the House. Now, it moves over to the Senate for consideration.
2. File a Lawsuit
Randy Sorrels, an attorney and past president of the Texas Bar association sees the situation this way: “These companies were more than happy to make all the profits they could make on the backs of the consumers. But once the big losses occurred, they don’t want to carry those losses, they want to put those losses on the backs of the consumers.”
Sorrels says consumers should contact a lawyer to see if filing a class-action lawsuit against their gas company is possible.
KPRC 2 Investigates contacted Unigas and the company president sent us this email stating, “We have worked actively and received approval with the Railroad Commission of Texas to reduce the previously approved “Winter Weather Installment Fee” by approximately 70%.” And future winter weather installment fees will be suspended indefinitely until there is greater clarity regarding house bill 1520.”
KPRC 2 also reached out to the city of Brazoria for an interview and a statement. We have not received a response.
Who is my state lawmaker?
The Texas Legislature is composed of two chambers. It contains 31 members in the Senate and 150 members in the House of Representatives.
The Capitol runs a website that can connect you with your local lawmaker.
“Who Represents Me,” provides information about current districts and members of the Texas Senate, and Texas House of Representatives. You input your address to connect with your lawmaker.
Click here to find out who represents you.
3. Make Your Home More Energy Efficient
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, some people who have weatherized their homes have saved an average of $300 in annual utility costs while adding an estimated $1,000 to the value of their homes.
Want to save money on your utility bills? Find advice and get help here.