11/23/2017

Jan. 22, 2001: Before being allowed to correspond with you on a regular basis, I was required to recite the Columnist’s Oath.

In doing so, I solemnly swore I would uphold the Constitution of the United States, defend it against all enemies, domestic and foreign, never use words like “synergy” and “input” and read my Thesaurus every day. I also pledged to take complicated issues and explain them in such a simple way that you would feel compelled to clip and paste for future reference.

Today my topic is the deregulation of natural gas in the state of Georgia. This seems to be a matter of some interest since a number of you are contemplating selling your first born to pay for the privilege of not freezing to death.

The idea of deregulating natural gas began in the offices of the Georgia Public Service Commission. The Commissioners were sitting around one day lamenting the fact that although they are elected statewide, nobody knows who they are. Gone are the halcyon days of Bobby Pafford and Billy Lovett when the PSC was battling utility rate increases and hearing rooms were filled with consumer advocates, lawyers and lots of television cameras.

“I have an idea,” said one commissioner, “let’s reform public education.” “That is not in our jurisdiction,” said a second commissioner, “Besides Roy Barnes has already beaten us to it.” Then a third commissioner – who will go nameless to protect his well being – leapt from his chair and cried, “Eureka! I have it. Let’s get the Legislature to deregulate natural gas in Georgia. We will become famous for being the first state to deregulate the utilities. Songs will be written about us. Our children’s children will read about us in history books and we will all be reelected by acclamation.”

“Not so fast,” cautioned a fourth. “California has already deregulated their utilities and their politicians are basking in the glory of their success.” “A mere technicality,” sniffed his colleague, “They only deregulated electric utilities. We are talking natural gas. Nobody in Georgia cares what happens in California. Our electorate will be in awe when we take credit for being first. We will be so popular we’ll have to take turns being governor.”

Thus it was that natural gas deregulation was born.

As a first step, the local monopoly, Atlanta Gas Light, agreed to haul the gas in from Texas or Louisiana or Cleveland – wherever the stuff comes from – and to form a marketing company that would compete with the host of other companies that eagerly sought to provide natural gas to the homes and businesses in the state. The PSC wanted customers to have a variety of choices and they got it – from large companies like SCANA and Georgia Natural Gas to entrepreneurs like Manny’s Sump Pump Repair. Alas, many of the marketers quickly fell by the wayside. They have no one to blame but themselves. These companies made the strategic error of billing their customers every month and thus severely impacted their bottom line. The savvy marketers only billed customers when they got around to it – which was mostly never – and saved additional dollars by including in the first bill, notice to discontinue service for nonpayment of all the other bills they had not sent.

As the Public Service Commission had hoped, there has been little reaction from the general public to natural gas deregulation. Many users have no idea what they are being billed for and therefore can’t figure out what questions to ask. A large number are too cold to care and the rest are too busy researching which commissioner is next up for reelection.

Once again, the state of Georgia has stepped out front. We showed those Chardonnay-drinking liberals in California a thing or two. Our natural gas deregulation effort is the envy of the rest of the country. Admittedly, the other states don’t seem to be rushing to emulate our success but that is because they are too jealous to admit our utility commissioners are smarter than theirs.

As for California, it won’t be long until their lights go out and they come hat in hand, begging us to sell them some of our natural gas. We’ll do it but just to rub it in, we won’t send them a bill.

With that, dear reader, I trust I have fulfilled my oath and have explained to your satisfaction why the Georgia Public Service Commission chose to give us all a bad case of gas. Please clip and paste.