Dear Editor, On June 2, the city of Austin agreed to raise regional natural gas utility rates by about $10.3 million annually, a total of over $51 million over the next 5 years. This took place at a virtual settlement hearing of a gas rate case before the Texas Railroad Commission. With the roiled confusion of the pandemic, the economic hardship caused by the pandemic, and the recent demonstrations on civil rights, few people have noticed that Texas Gas Service, the main natural gas provider in the region, asked for a huge rate increase. Between 2007 and 2019, the gas company’s increase in residential rates has totaled 80%, while inflation was just 27% in the same time period. The June 2 settlement will raise rates 13% more! On April 30, nine environmental and consumer organizations wrote a letter asking the Austin City Council to implement strategies that would lower gas rates, encourage conservation, fund low-income bill assistance, and fund renewable energy research. On May 7, Council voted against the gas rate increase and asked that the activists’ strategies be considered as part of any further negotiations with the gas company. However, city staff assigned to this rate case largely ignored the requests of activists. Instead, they made the final deal without Council’s consent. This is highly irregular. It is customary for settlements such as this to be brought back to Council for approval. Staff turned democracy on its ear for the sake of convenience. When this pandemic is finally over, it is going to take some time for our economy to recover. Having this $51 million handicap is not going to help this any.
Paul Robbins, Environmental Activist and Consumer Advocate