First published in the Jan. 29, 2022, print issue of the Burbank Leader.
When Scott Collins got his January gas bill, he thought he had a leak.
The charge was about $350, more than twice the $170 he’d paid in December and nearly 40% more than his bill from January 2021. But the Burbank resident said he checked his usage statistics and found it was comparable to the amount a year prior.
“That seems kind of crazy,” he said in a recent interview. “I don’t like having bills where [it’s like], ‘Surprise, you owe the gas company $100 more than you thought.’”
Collins isn’t alone. Several Burbank residents told the Leader that their gas bills recently doubled or even tripled compared to what they’ve paid in previous years.
The Southern California Gas Company, the Los Angeles-based utility that provides gas to Burbank residents, acknowledged that customers are seeing an increase in their bills, but added gas prices should drop in the next month or two. Candice Lee, a spokesperson for the company, said in an email that the market price for natural gas has increased significantly — almost double what it was a year ago — and that rate increases also went into effect at the beginning of the year.
“I should point out that SoCalGas customers aren’t alone in this,” Lee added. “Natural gas prices are high across the country and gas utilities like SoCalGas do not control these commodity prices. The price of natural gas is determined by broader regional and national markets and passed on directly to our customers without any markup. We do not make a profit off of commodity costs.”
BILLS, GAS PRICE SEE JUMPS
In total, Lee explained, the average residential customer who is not enrolled in SoCalGas’ California Alternate Rates for Energy program will likely see a January 2022 gas bill increase of about $32, or 32% compared to the January 2021 total. About $30 of that jump is due to natural gas becoming more expensive, Lee said. For qualifying households, the CARE program provides discounted rates for utilities.
SoCalGas’ website lists the January core procurement — or market — natural gas price at 83.57 cents per therm, roughly the amount of heat energy in 100 cubic feet of natural gas. That price was 65.13 cents in December and 39.76 cents in January 2021.
A report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicated that lower natural gas inventories and tighter supply-and-demand balances contributed to the rise in prices last year. Lee didn’t say what factors could have contributed to the rise in commodity prices.
The company’s rate increases, which the California Public Utilities Commission approved in 2019, will have a more permanent effect. The average residential rate increased by about 6% while the average small business rate rose by about 14%, Lee said, with SoCalGas’ increased revenue going toward maintaining its transportation system.
SoCalGas’ rates also increase substantially during the winter “on-peak” months of December, January and February.
UTILITY, EXPERT GIVE RECOMMENDATIONS
SoCalGas recommends that customers looking to save money on their gas bills lower their thermostat by a few degrees, wash their clothes in cold water or sign up for aid programs if they are income-eligible. More information about those initiatives are available at socalgas.com/winter.
Collins said he switched to the company’s “level pay” program, which averages customers’ bills and charges them equal amounts throughout the year. Michael Bravin, another Burbank homeowner, said that he and his wife have considered switching to electric appliances after seeing their gas bill increase from $130 in January 2021 to $218 this month.
“The first thing that hit me was the helpless part of it, that there’s not much we can do about it,” Bravin said, adding that while he can afford the increase, he worried about those who are retired or on fixed incomes.
The impact of the increased bills is indeed more significant for low-income households, communities of color and areas with higher renter populations, Kelly Trumbull, an energy and climate researcher with the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, said in an email.
Trumbull emphasized that pivoting to cleaner energy sources is necessary to combat the climate crisis, but expressed concern that low-income residences might not experience the transition at the same time as higher-income households.
“I think the question though is more around how we make this shift equitable for households, rather than if we should make this shift,” she said. “Policymakers should consider how to ensure that low-income and other vulnerable households don’t bear the cost burden of this transition.”
Trumbull also believes officials should pursue programs that help prevent utility shutoffs, such as rate discounts, efficiency programs and utility debt forgiveness.