They are paying about 60 percent more for natural gas than a year ago.
By HAROLD GWIN
VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU
SHARON -- Gas bills for 30,000 Mercer County customers of National Fuel Gas Distribution Corp. jumped 24.5 percent today.
The increase comes on the heels of a 19 percent increase in the company's gas cost rate in September.
That earlier increase, coupled with extremely cold weather in November and December that had consumers burning more gas than normal, has made it difficult for some people on fixed incomes to pay their utility bills.
Today's increase is expected to generate some heat of its own for members of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, who are coming to Sharon High School at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 to hear concerns about rising gas rates.
The PUC regulates utilities, but there isn't much it can do about gas cost rates.
That's what suppliers pay for the gas they buy to deliver to their customers. State law permits them to pass that cost directly to the consumer, adjusting the rate on a quarterly basis. But suppliers are prohibited from making any profit on gas cost rates. Their profits are made on transmission and delivery of gas.
National Fuel could adjust its gas cost rates again in May.
Residential customers nationwide had been warned they could be paying as much as 70 percent more for natural gas this year than they paid last year.
National Fuel said the latest increase will put its customers' costs at about 60 percent higher than last year.
Rise in average bill: The new rate puts the average annual residential gas bill at $1,416, up from $1,137.
National Fuel had announced two weeks ago that it was projecting a 9.7 percent increase in its gas cost rate from Aug. 1, 2001, to July 31, 2002.
Spokeswoman Nancy J. Taylor said that number may be revised before it goes into effect.
The company had predicted that gas cost rates would drop by 2.7 percent last August, but that never happened, as costs went up instead, Taylor said.
The increases are the result of continued high national wholesale prices coming from a supply and demand imbalance, Taylor said. Part of that higher demand is caused by the expanded use of natural gas in the generation of electric power, and part is because of a colder than normal winter, she said.
National Fuel serves 214,000 customers in 14 northwestern Pennsylvania counties. It has none in Lawrence County.
Taylor said the company is using gas from stockpiles gathered at lower prices last summer and is buying gas on the open market, trying to make the best deals it can.
Some comes from northwestern Pennsylvania suppliers, but there isn't much of that gas available, Taylor said, noting most local producers sell directly to industry.
Not always lowest: Local prices are not always the lowest prices, she added.
The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare is taking steps to help more low-income families affected by rising utility costs, announcing that its Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program has expanded its eligibility limits and raised the maximum crisis benefits to $700.
A family of four with a total income of $25,575 can qualify for those benefits.
Applications for the program must be filed by April 30.