GUEST

Williams: Legislation enacted to combat high bills from winter storms

By Rep. Danny Williams

A year ago , Oklahoma was in the midst of a severe winter storm that tore down thousands of tree limbs across the state and left many Oklahomans without power for days.

Just a few months later, in February 2021, a second winter storm shot up the cost of gas, resulting in potentially exorbitant bills.

Due to increased demand for natural gas during the storm, public utilities had to go onto the open market and pay historically expensive natural gas prices to meet consumers' demands.

Public utilities operate differently than other businesses. Rather than setting their own prices, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) regulates how much they can charge. In normal weather, this cost allows the utilities to recapture the money  spent providing the service and make the profit necessary to continue to operate.

When the cost of natural gas skyrocketed , public utilities paid extraordinarily high costs to continue to provide the same service, but since their prices are set by the OCC, they took a huge financial hit.

Other kinds of companies would have been forced to close after such a significant loss. Since public utilities are unable to raise prices without approval from the OCC, they paid the cost themselves and sought approval to raise prices for consumers to regain the profit necessary to continue operating.

Immediately following the winter storm, the Legislature began working with the governor's office, members of the OCC, and stakeholders from public utilities to mitigate the long-term effects of this event for consumers.

We eventually passed Senate Bill 1049, which authorizes the Oklahoma Development Finance Authority (ODFA) to provide a pooled loan program for financing of qualified costs incurred by unregulated utilities. The purpose is to mitigate extreme purchase costs and extraordinary costs to customers of the unregulated utilities related to the February 2021 extreme weather event. Funding for the program is provided through the issuance of utility revenue bonds issued by ODFA.

We also approved Senate Bill 1050, which outlines the process for securitizing the extreme purchase costs or extraordinary costs incurred by regulated utility companies during the extreme weather event. The measure includes a list of factors the OCC must consider when making a determination that a regulated utility has extreme costs subject to the act.

Before costs are passed to consumers, the request must pass through a regulatory process before the OCC. The commission must ensure public utilities don't take advantage of emergencies by making an extremely high profit. If approved, companies could finance their costs with the bonds outlined in SB1049 and repay the bonds while continuing to provide reasonably priced services to customers.

These bills finance the reimbursement cost over many years, so consumers should see only a small increase in their monthly bills. Oklahoma Natural Gas (ONG) has stated their average monthly increase in the first year for residential customers would be around $7.73, with lower costs in following years. The most recent estimate from Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OG&E) for a residential consumer using 1,100 kilowatt hours a month is an additional $3.93 a month over 13 years.

The OCC is scheduled to begin hearings regarding ONG's application Nov. 22. Public comments may be made at the hearings. Comment may be given Nov. 22 via Zoom, at https://www.zoomgov.com/j/16108903595 or by telephone by dialing 669-254-5252 and enter the Meeting ID 161 0890 3595. Written comments also are accepted by mail to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, P.O. Box 52000, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73152 or by email to PUDenergy@occ.ok.gov with “Attention: Public Comment PUD 202100079” in the subject line.

OG&E's request was reviewed beginning Oct. 11, but the Corporation Commission will not announce its final decision until Dec. 15. Public comments on the case, PUD 202100072, can be taken electronically through cs@occ.ok.gov and will be accepted in written form by mail sent to the clerk of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, 2101 N Lincoln, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105.

I will provide an update to this situation when decisions have been reached by the OCC.

Rep. Danny Williams, a Republican, represents House District 28 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. His district includes Seminole County and northern Pottawatomie County.