Sixty years ago, the residents of Tahlequah relied on propane, electricity and wood to heat their homes and businesses.
The effort to change those circumstances began in 1958 with the establishment of the trust known today as the Northeast Oklahoma Public Facilities Authority, which brought natural gas service to the city.
An instigator of NOPFA was Dr. Harrell E. Garrison, president of Northeastern State University. Working with city leaders from Tahlequah and Fort Gibson, Garrison fought for creation of the trust in the face of fierce opposition by the liquid gas industry.
Dr. Brad Agnew, a professor of history at NSU and author of the Northeastern Centennial History, said Tahlequah voters granted a 25-year franchise to the Haskell Gas Co. in 1929. Two attempts to bring natural gas to the city were thwarted in court by the city’s propane and butane dealers.
“After securing the trust establishing the Northeast Oklahoma Gas Authority, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled it illegal because it did not have voter approval in the communities in which it operated,” Agnew said.
Harrison and the cities of Tahlequah and Fort Gibson quickly arranged special elections to put the trust to a vote. It was approved with almost no opposition.
The propane-butane industry forced another election, to no avail. On March 16, 1962, Harrison opened a valve to bring the first natural gas service to Tahlequah.
Today, NOPFA serves more than 13,000 homes and businesses in Tahlequah, Stilwell and Westville. It continues to operate as a trust.
“NOPFA is a bit of an odd creation,” said Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols. “It isn’t really a city operation like the Tahlequah Public Works Authority. I sit on the board of trustees, along with representatives of Stilwell and Westville, and our cities are beneficiaries, but NOPFA was organized by Garrison as a trust of NSU.”
Nichols said a “trust” is an entity created by state statute to conduct a certain function, most often utility service.
“Trusts have a few advantages - what I would call advantages - in that they can be run a little more like a business and a little less like a government agency,” he said.
The NOPFA Board of Trustees sets natural gas rates, which are affected by the cost of purchase among other factors.
“At the end of each month, actual natural gas cost is determined by the seller, transportation costs are determined by the transporter and operational expenses are figured,” said Jim Reagan, general manager for NOPFA. “The total dollar amount is then billed to each customer, per 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas.”
The supplier of natural gas to NOPFA is Clearwater Enterprises LLC, a company based in Oklahoma City. Because natural gas is a speculative commodity, NOPFA has the option of entering purchasing contracts ranging in duration from six months to three years.
“Typically, NOPFA’s contracts for natural gas are formulated on a percentage of the estimated monthly load, for a determined dollar amount - any excess volume used is purchased at market pricing,” Reagan said. “Contracts, stating a percentage of monthly usage at a set price, reduce the risk of exposure to a volatile daily market price.”
Some price factors lie far beyond Oklahoma. In recent months, an unusually cold winter created an unanticipated spike in gas consumption in the northeast and Great Lakes regions.
The usage depleted reserves and sent prices soaring.
“Hurricanes and earthquakes can affect gas prices,” Reagan said. “Extended periods of hot weather are now a factor, because many electric power plants are converting from coal to natural gas. Exports of gas also play a role in pricing.”
Billing for NOPFA is handled by the Tahlequah Public Works Authority. A standard deposit to begin residential service is $150. If service is cut off due to a delinquent account, there is a $50 reconnect fee, and $50 must be added to the deposit.
Customers can file a written request for hardship consideration, which must include an explanation of circumstances which might support the request.
Stays of service suspension and extension of payment deadlines can be made at the discretion of Reagan or Julie Sevier, office manager.
To see a list of the current NOPFA Board of Trustees, go to tahlequahdailypress.com/onlineexclusives