Assembly OKs bill on natural gas; PSC would be able to license suppliers; Utilities


A state bill that would add consumer protections to Maryland's deregulated natural gas market won final passage in the Maryland General Assembly yesterday.

The legislation, if signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, will grant the Maryland Public Service Commission the authority to license gas suppliers, as well as the authority to enforce comprehensive consumer protections.

A Washington-based utility failed to gain support for an amendment that would have scaled back the bill.

Washington Gas Light Co., which has 350,000 gas customers in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, said the consumer protections offered in the bill would be too sweeping and might require gas suppliers to raise rates. The utility supported the licensing aspect of the bill, officials said.

"We did not see the amount of complaints that would mandate a bill," said James B. Wagner, Washington Gas' manager of regulatory affairs. "The problems are not there.

"Suppliers have expressed concerns that legislation usually means higher costs that would eventually be passed on to consumers."

Statoil Energy Services Inc., Conectiv Energy and AGF Direct, which market natural gas in Maryland, said they supported the amendment.

Glenn F. Ivey, Public Service Commission chairman, said he disagreed with Washington Gas' argument. The PSC reported 200 complaints about deceptive tactics used by gas marketers in their door-to-door solicitations of customers.

"The bill will be useful in ensuring our ability to protect consumers," he said.

The state bill that passed was supported by the PSC, the state's Office of People's Counsel and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

Unlike the situation with electricity deregulation, which is set to start in July and will have suppliers licensed and monitored by the PSC, gas suppliers are authorized by utilities such as BGE and Washington Gas to enter the Maryland market if they meet certain financial requirements.

It is not necessary for gas suppliers to be licensed in Maryland before they may sign up customers. Additionally, neither the PSC nor the attorney general's office has the authority to handle complaints.

"We worked with the PSC and some of the other utilities to address a problem that we all saw, and that is the gas market developed without any licensing procedures and statutory consumer protection," said Michael J. Travieso, head of the Office of People's Counsel.

"We are very pleased the bill passed."

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