Despite protest, ICC allows Chicago area gas companies to hike rates

By Bethel Habte

Despite a visible and vocal opposition at a public hearing Wednesday, the Illinois Commerce Commission granted two major area gas companies rate increases after Jan. 28, by a vote of 3 to 1.

After reviewing Peoples Gas’s request to increase natural gas delivery system rates by $129 million, the commission approved a $74.8 million hike. North Shore Gas originally requested a $7.1 million increase, but the commission approved a $3.7 million increase.

With the new rates, the average Peoples Gas residential heating customer could pay approximately $2.70 to $2.75 more per month while an average North Shore Gas residential heating customer could pay approximately $1.05 to $1.10 more per month.

In a February 2014 press release, Integrys Energy Group Inc., the parent company of both companies, cited the polar vortex in 2014 as one reason behind the request to raise rates.

“The harsh Chicago winter we’re experiencing has demonstrated the need to continually ensure our natural gas delivery system is resilient, safe and reliable,” stated Will Evans, Jr., president of both North Shore and Peoples Gas.

Integrys’s profits increased in 2014 to $83.3 million from $38.1 million in 2013, or 118 percent.

Prior to the vote, several citizens voiced their opposition to any increase. The small chamber overlooking LaSalle Street held about 40 people and about a dozen wielded protest signs.

After taking many pauses in her allotted three minutes to compose herself, life-long Chicago resident and Peoples Gas customer Mary Bailey explained that the company shut off her service in June 2014 because she could no longer keep up with payments, and the lack of heat caused other problems.

“Due to the cold weather earlier this month– the furnace, the pipes and most of the radiators burst,” she said. “I have no running water.”

Bailey implored the commission to reject the increase and take more steps to ensure that utilities are affordable and widely available.

“Commissioners, it is expensive to be poor,” she said. “And another rate increase only makes it worse.”

Life-long Chicago resident Mary Bailey delivered an emotional speech before the ICC. Bailey was one of more than a dozen citizens protesting the rate hikes. (Bethel Habte/Medill)

Though the rate increases passed, Commissioner Sherina E. Maye noted that the ICC would be granting Peoples Gas $35.371 million less than what it requested and North Shore Gas $1.226 million less. Peoples Gas originally requested $129 million and North Shore Gas originally requested $7.1 million.

“Although based on our decision today it may appear to some citizens that we did not consider the effect a rate increase would have on the public, please know that we considered the public interest in every way possible,” she said.

Virginia Miller, operations manager for the Midwest Workers Association, declared that the commission’s trims to the gas companies’ requests were not enough.

“The demands of our members assembled were very clear which were reject any rate increase, roll back the rates, reconnect service for all, stop the shutoffs,” she said. “The position of our members is clearly that the rates are already too high.”

Miller was heartened by Commissioner Miguel Del Valle’s lone vote in opposition to the increase.

“I’ve never seen a commissioner vote against one of these rate increases,” she said. “The fact that one commissioner voted against and three of them addressed this and addressed our concerns, tells me that we are making progress in terms of bringing the needs of the people to the fore in this state.”

Photo at top: Citizens carried signs into a public meeting of the Illinois Commerce Commission Wednesday to protest natural gas rate increases. The commission voted 3-1 in favor of the increases. (Bethel Habte/Medill)