Utility bills from February shock customers

Keri Thornton | Daily Press

Area residents expressed their frustration after receiving their electric and natural gas bills from February's winter storm.

Several local residents expressed frustration and shock after receiving electric and natural gas bills - some of them reaching four figures - from usage during February's winter storm.

Trustees of the Northeast Oklahoma Public Facilities Authority met with their supplier on March 11, when they came up with a solution to the costly bills.

NOPFA Chairman Dr. Steve Turner said the invoice from Clearwater Enterprises was $7.5 million, and NOPFA agreed to pay $2.5 million after an expert reviewed the numbers. NOPFA and its customers will have 12 months to pay.

NOPFA's bill for the entire year of 2020 from the supplier was about $4.5 million, and for the month of February 2021 alone, the bill is $7,591,186.

The market for natural gas was $3.43 per 1,000 cubic feet on Feb. 8. However, the market had shot up to $76 per 1,000 cubic feet by Feb. 12, and eventually, the "spot market" hit $1,193 per 1,000 cubic feet, in just a matter of days.

According to online dictionaries, the "spot market," or cash market, is "a public financial market in which financial instruments or commodities are traded for immediate delivery. It contrasts with a futures market, in which delivery is due at a later date."

NOPFA General Manager Jim Reagan said their contract with Clearwater Enterprises includes 50 percent of their monthly usage, at a fixed price of $3.43 per dekatherm.

"The 50 percent is calculated from a five-year average of our monthly usage," said Reagan.

"The remaining amount of gas we use in the month is bought on the natural gas market at gas daily prices. Each month has a different usage amount at the same fixed price, and for the month of February, 110,000 dekatherms were fixed at the $3.43."

Within the first eight days of February, 110,000 dekatherms were used, which forced the purchase of 221,206 dekatherms at the gas daily prices for the remainder of the month. It's an unprecedented situation, Reagan said.

"No one in the gas industry has ever seen these types of prices. Because of the record-setting low temperatures in multiple states that normally don't have these types of temperatures for such a long period of time -- it put an enormous strain on the pipelines and the producers were having problems keeping up with the demand," said Reagan.

NOPFA was monitoring its pipeline pressures, and Reagan said those were getting critically low during the winter storm.

"I know they were having problems getting enough gas in the system, but I cannot - nor do I believe anyone can - explain the excessive price increase that happened," he said.

NOPFA is allowing customers to pay one-third of their bills on April 15, and the remaining two-thirds can be spread out for 11 months and added to their monthly bills.

Jerry C. Cook, manager of customer support services for Grand River Dam Authority, said there are several variables to overcome before GRDA can make a decision on funding or a recovery mechanism.

"I do know we spent, in less than 72 hours, more money than we budgeted for the whole year for natural gas," Cook said.

Cook said GRDA is close to making final cost data for its wholesale municipal customers, like Tahlequah Public Works Authority, for discussions and input. After that, the data will go to the GRDA Board before pricing becomes effective.

Lake Region Electric Cooperative officials said the power cost adjustment will need to be reviewed after the historic winter storm.

"We will not know the full cost of these subfreezing temperatures, or what this event is going to cost the co-op from our generating provider until a later time," LREC said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Congress approved the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that could help those struggling to pay their electric bills. The American Rescue Plan Act provided $4.5 billion in emergency funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and LREC is informing its customers help is available for them.

Some local residents agreed the situation could have been a lot worse than what Texas is dealing with, but they are worried about those who won't be able to pay their bill.

"It is concerning. I have several ladies in my neighborhood who are on a fixed income. I'm just thankful this is a one-time deal," said Dana Boren-Boer, marketing coordinator Northeastern State University, who has also been involved with the biking-hiking trail project.

Pam McClendon Pritchett said her bill is usually between $60 and $80 a month, but her current bill is just under $300.

"I understand the price increase that has to trickle down to the consumer, but this is an avalanche," said Pritchett. "We live on Social Security, which means either few groceries, or do without my meds."

Misty Presley, whose family owns Presley's Burgers, said a friend of hers who lives in Texas got hit with a $16,000 bill. And the restaurant had a high one as well.

There are about 11,000 residential customers of NOPFA in Tahlequah, Stilwell, and Westville.

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