- Many thousands of Chicago households are disconnected
from Peoples Gas just as high natural gas costs almost guarantee an expensive
winter heating season.
- Peoples spokesman Rod Sierra, speaking at a hearing Tuesday
before four Chicago-area members of Congress, said as many as 30,000 city
households are disconnected from the utility, and another 14,000 households
are so far behind on their gas bills that they are eligible for disconnection.
He said those numbers include people who have simply walked away from their
- "We are doing all we can to reach out to those customers,"
Sierra said. But he and other industry officials conceded there is not
enough money to help low-income gas customers through the winter.
- The hearing was held by House Democrats Jan Schakowsky,
Bobby Rush, Dan Lipinski and Danny Davis. They are concerned that record-high
natural gas costs will hurt low- and moderate-income households this winter.
- "We know this crisis is coming," Schakowsky
said, while Lipinski predicted that "seniors will be forced to choose
between heat and medication."
- In an agreement announced Tuesday by the governor's office,
the state's gas utilities--Peoples, Nicor Inc. and Ameren Corp.--will waive
reconnection fees and suspend deposit requirements for customers receiving
heating-bill help through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
- The utilities will allow customers with account balances
that are too high to be covered by a program grant alone, but less than
$3,000, to have their service restored by paying $250, or 20 percent, of
their balance, whichever is less
- But the representatives got little comfort from Ed Hurley,
the newly appointed Illinois special director of emergency energy assistance.
Hurley's job is to coordinate home-heating assistance offered by various
- "The average Illinois household will pay about $600
more to heat their homes this year than last year," said Hurley, former
chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission.
- A variety of factors have pushed natural gas to record
highs this year. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita curtailed gas production in
the Gulf of Mexico, while demand continues to rise.
- One speaker, Illinois Commerce Commissioner Robert Lieberman,
said that nearly all electrical generation plants built in recent years
are fueled with natural gas. That means that gas, once cheap in the summer,
now is expensive year round.
- "We have doubled the amount of gas we use"
for electrical generation, Lieberman said.
- The Citizens Utility Board and others at the meeting
urged residential consumers to go on their utility's budget plan.
- All of the state's gas utilities offer plans in which
a customer pays the same amount each month. Although the annual total is
the same as a fluctuating bill, the fixed bill avoids the sky-high bills
of January and February and allows people to better budget their money.
- Schakowsky wasn't convinced that a budget plan is the
answer. She said the budget plan for her home called for payments of more
than $400 a month.
- "I don't find that suggestion helpful," she