Washington Gas Light Co., like many public utilities, suffers from a volatility in its profits that can't keep everybody happy.
Since 1972, the natural gas distributing firm has not accepted new customers because of supply shortages. Gas sales fell progressively from 1972 through 1975. For five consecutive years, weather was warmer than historical norms, reducing consumption demand.
Profits fell in a no-growth era, and rates were boosted sharply in 1972 and 1974 to help balance out the ravages of inflation. Consumers were aware of the rate increases but the impact was muted by modest use of natural gas.
By last August,with Washington Gas experiencing a continuing decline in pofitability, the national rating firm of Standard & Poor's downgraded its blessing for preffered stock of the Washington-based utility from A to A-minus. Standard & Poor's said the decision reflected, in part, "the company's substandard level of earnings protection."
At Washington Gas, the outlook was rather grim as recently as last fall. In September 1975, the firm had asked the D.C. public service commission for a $7.5 million rate increase. Last May, rate increases had been proposed in Maryland ($12.8 million) and Virginia ($8.6 million), but no action had been taken.
One reason for delayed response from the regulatory agencies was a radical new rate schedule proposed by Washington Gas, designed to ease the impact of weather-related profits swings on its ability to remain viable. When it was cold in winter, more gas was consumed and there were profits. When it was warm, profitability slumped.
Instead of charging different classes of customers rates based on volume, which conservationists said encouraged waste because the rates declined as volume used increased, Washington Gas proposed to install a flat rate for every unit of gas sold. In addition, the firm asked to establish a monthly service charge to cover continuing overhead costs associated with various customers - revenues that would continue in cold weather or warm.
It was in this environment that Washington Gas chairman Paul E. Reichardt and his associates planned for the winter of 1977. As always, Reichardt recalled last week, the local firm planned for cold weather - specifically anticipating winter days as cold as 5 degrees. "Every year, we prepare for a colder than normal winter," he said.
As in previous years, that meant Washington Gas storage tanks were filled to capacity, so the utility would have supplies on the coldest days to supplement its primary natural gas supply, from the Columbia Gas Transmission and Transcontinental pipeline companies.
Little did Reichardt know that his firm finally was preparing for a cold winter that would become reality.Nor could he forecast that has developed.
Last November, both Maryland and the District approved higher consumer rates for Washington Gas. In a significant change in utility-rate policy, the two public service commissions also approved the new rate structure. Virginia approved a surcharge on gas bills, pending a final decision on the rate case in that state. And cold weather hit about that same time, driving up natural gas consumption, Washington Gas revenues and Washington Gas profits.
Now, Washington Gas finds itself on the defensive against charges of profiteering, withholding supplies, and establishing what many customers now believe to be a discriminatory rate structure. There also January and February - specifically about planning for such an event and an enormous amount of public confusion that resulted from stores being closed in Northern Virginia but open in D.C. and Maryland.
There is no question that consumer fuel and utility bills have soared this winter, as the gas company had predicted last fall. The U.S. Labor Department, which compiles utility costs every month, said the total index for fuels and utilites in metropolitan Washington during January was 22.7 per cent above the same month in 1975.
Natural gas costs led the way, up 53.3 per cent from January 1975. The average bill for 100 therms of gas for home heating was $32.12 locally in January, surpassing the average for all U.S. cities by $11.24. Fuel oil here was up 12.1 per cent from the same period last year to $47.09 per 100 gallons for No. 2 fuel oil, almost $2 higher than in the Baltimore area. Electricity rates remained slightly below those of the 1975 period, however; Washington area consumers paid $21.02 for 500 kilowatt hours in January compared with $25.14 in Baltimore and $25.70 in Philadelphia.
Washington Gas last week attributed its higher-than-national-average rates to several factors, including a generally higher cost of living here, higher material costs and higher wages. More important, the company said, was the Washington ara's distance from producing gas fields along Gulf Coast and a different type of business, heavily oriented to residences. In most cities, large industrial customers share overhead to a large extent, thereby reducing residential rates.
In any event, reflecting both higher rates and a large increase insales volume, Washington Gas profits surged in the fourth quarter of 1976 to $6.8 million compared with a loss in the same 1975 period of $1.6 million. Revenues rose to $83 million from $57 million.
Braced with the fourth-quarter gain, Washington Gas was able to report a significant gain in profits for all of calendar 1976. Net income was up 60 per cent to $17.2 million from $10.8 million in 1975, revenues rose 20 per cent to $270 million and profits per share rose 68 per cent to $3.30 from $1.96. The $3.30 in various 12-month periods in recent yars.
Moreover, the 1976 profits reflected a one-time gain of $1.39 million from settlement of a suit filed against Atlantic Richfield Co. Not counting this extraordinary gain and the cumulative effect of a change in accounting for 1975, actual operating profits of Washington Gas were up 99 per cent in 1976.
This performance led Rep. Herbert E. Harris II (D-Va.) to observe last week: "At the time when tremendous hardship is being imposed upon the people of our region, the Washington Gas Light Co., which distributes the gas, as well as the Columbia Gas Transmission Corp., which supplies gas to our region, have enjoyed record profits."
Responding to Harris, at a hearing of the House District Subcommittee on Economic Development and Regional Affairs, Reichardt said it is "improper" to concentrate attention on the earnings for any one nature of the company's business."
Washington Gas profits and revenues "are weather-sensitive, since a large percentage of the company's revenues is derived from the sale of gas for heating. Typically, the company loses money during the nonheating months; for example, in the second and third quarters of 1976,. the company experienced an aggregate loss of $10.5 million. Thus, to avoid misinterpretation, we do not report to our stockholders our quarterly earnings as we progress through the year," Reichardt testified.
As for Columbia Gas, the wholesale distributor for 85 per cent of the Washington Gas pipeline supply, president James D. Little said last week that profits in Novvember and December were $50.3 million compared with $14.8 million in the 1975 period, a gain of $35.5 million.
Little, who also said such comparisions are "misleading," cited 43 per cent colder weather as a major factor inrising consumption of gas; actual sales were up 33.8 per cent, accounting for $11.7 million of the higher profits in the two months. Another factor was higher interstate rates.
But Little said his firm stands to lose profits in the early months of 1977 because of the sharp gains at the end of last year. As he explained it, the reason for this is that each customer of the pipeline (local distributors in the Midwest and Northeast such as Washington Gas) has a seasonal limitation on gas purchases. If that limit is exceeded, a penalty of $10 per thousand cubic feet must be paid.
"Thus, with less volumes over the current winter season, the excessive purchases during November and December of 1976 will require substantially reduced purchases in January through March" to stay within established limits, Little stated.
Meanwhile, a Washington Gas spokesman confirmed last week that Columbia Gas had demanded during the recent crisis that the local firm not draw freely on its supplemental reserves of gas or synthetic supplies to augment area gas volume. Columbia told all its customers not to serve anyone but essential human needs customers - whether from supplies of the pipelines or its own resources.
But Charles Krautler, the Washington Gas spokesman, emphasized that Columbia's dictate was subject to legal interpretation and could have been challenged in court. The issue was moot because Washington Gas was in no position to draw more of its already depleted reserves for the rest of the winter, in any event, he stated.
Reichardt said that if all his firm's non-pipeline resources were drawn upon, the company could meet only one-third its demand on any given day.
The gas company executive also defended his firm's decision to continue sales to large, interruptible customers until shortly after Christmas. The interruptible users pay a special rate but may be cut off at any time to conserve gas for higher-priority users; in the metropolitan area, such customers include the National Bureau of Standards and the University of Maryland.
In December, supplies appeared adequate for continuation of such sales, while "looking at the winter with 20-20 hidsight" produces a different conclusion, he said.
Columbia Gas also was supplying for low-priority users in October, because of excess supplies at the time and before cold weather began on Oct. 16. In fact, Columbia sold more gas in October than in November, but William H. Howard, senior vice president of the pipeline firm, insisted last week that the excess sales in October did not contribute to a shortage in January and February.
In future hearings before the House subcommittee, Harris plans to question officials from various regional governments to get their explanation for what happened in the winter of 1977. When Columbia Gas officially "decreed" a gas emergency in seven states and the District on Jan. 28, "thousands were put out of work, schools were closed, millions of tax dollars were lost" in this area, Harris said last week.
States and local government were given less than 24 hours to implement emergency plans and "the result was inconsistency up and down the seven states served by the pipeline," Harris added. He was especially critical of Virginia Gov. Mills Godwin for taking "extreme measures" by limiting work at commercial establishments to 40 hours a week.
Washington Gas chairman Reichardt said that if all governments had abided by his firm's own emergency orders, which were approved by state regulatory agencies, there would have been less confusion. But Godwin had to consider other factors beyond Northern Virginia - such as counties to the south that depend on Transcontinental Pipeline, a supplier with supplies even more scarce then Columbia.