“You figure an increase, I could have lived with $100, maybe $200, but $500–that’s crazy,” Garretson resident Beth Braa said.
People living in three rural Minnehaha county communities are getting a huge shock with their natural gas bills this month.
Customers across the country saw extreme spikes in their bills due to February’s weeklong cold snap that stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s an increase that everyone may eventually notice on their gas bills, but in South Dakota, the problem is especially impacting members of three municipal gas companies.
“I expected my bill to go up a little bit,” Renner resident Sandy Bruns said.
But Bruns got a letter from Crooks Municipal Gas Friday warning her those expectations fell far short.
“I actually cried,” Bruns said. “They said well, your bill will be about $500 this month. I’m like what, I’ve got two bills here, one’s $83 for December another is for $97 in January.”
“Last month it was $120, this month it was $624,” Braa said.
It’s a similar story for Braa and other Garretson Municipal Gas customers.
“Mine was one of the cheaper ones I’ve heard of, I’ve heard $800, $900, even $1,000,” Braa said.
“The supply wasn’t there, the demand was extremely high and natural gas pricing is not regulated by the state and it’s not regulated by the federal government,” South Dakota Public Utilities Commissioner Kristie Fiegen said.
Fiegen says the PUC has no price oversight for South Dakota’s four city-owned gas utility companies, including Humbolt, Crooks and Garretson where customers are seeing these big bills.
“The cold weather event went from Canada to Texas, when you’re in that market and everybody is cold, that’s a one in a 100 or one in 80-year event,” Fiegen said.
Crooks Mayor Butch Oseby says in over 25 years, the city has never seen a price issue like this. The city sent a letter to customers explaining what happened that week. During the extreme demand and shortened supply of the cold snap, the usual rate of $3.35 dollars per unit jumped as high as $900 a unit.
“Crooks gas said they were charged $475,000 for one week’s worth of gas. Somebody’s making a lot of money, and that’s what angers me,” Bruns said.
Mayor Osbey said that a one-week bill is more than half of what the city usually pays for natural gas in a year.
“The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has opened an investigation to make sure there was no price gouging or market manipulations because we saw really high prices,” Fiegen said.
An increase Bruns and other customers knew nothing about.
“I wish they would have notified us, that hey, we may be billed more for this, conserve your energy, and we would have done that, but now, we’re forced to pay it,” Bruns said.
Mayor Osbey said the city made several posts about conserving energy on Facebook, but says this event was a learning experience. Now he hopes the city can come up with an emergency notification system that can let people know when they’re facing an increased rate as soon as it begins.
Bruns says the city has been very accommodating, trying to help as many residents as possible; however, she hopes this issue is addressed at the national level.
“These people needed this and there was such a demand because it was so cold; if this is the best the United States can do in a crisis like this, then I’m ashamed, I’m ashamed of our country,” Bruns said.
The increased bills come at an already difficult time for many families.
“I lost my job last year because of covid,” Braa said. “I’ve been trying to figure out on Social Security, how to budget and make it work. You don’t just have $500 extra to do that kind of stuff.”
“We feel for the hardship of those families that are going to have increased bills. We hope that those bills can be spread out and that you can work with those utilities on a payment plan,” Fiegen said.
The Crooks City Council decided to bill the gas at cost to all customers and waive any profit margins. The city is also giving customers until October 1st to pay their February bills with no late fees or additional charges.
Most customers of investor-owned companies like Northwestern and MidAmerican will see costs spread out over the next year, but their increases will likely be much less because it’s spread out over more customers. Humbolt, Crooks and Garretson are seeing a greater impact because there are fewer customers to share the rate hike.