Three members of Maryland's congressional delegation, spurred by predictions that local consumers will pay 25 percent more for natural gas this winter, yesterday introduced legislation to help keep a lid on price increases in the future.
The proposed legislation would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve any price increases sought by gas pipeline companies before the increases went into effect. Currently, the higher prices take effect even if FERC is reviewing a challenge to them, a process that sometimes drags on for months.
The bill was introduced yesterday by Maryland Reps. Beverly Byron (D), Roy Dyson (D) and Marjorie Holt (R), whose offices had been deluged by constituent complaints about the huge increases expected this winter, according to a Byron aide.
A push is on in Congress to deal with the skyrocketing costs of natural gas, and dozens of bills on the subject have been introduced, but House sources said their chances for passage during the brief lame duck session are slim. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing on several Senate bills Dec. 13, but that is just a few days before Congress is scheduled to adjourn.
The price increases facing Washington-area consumers are caused by a huge surplus of expensive gas held by the area's major pipeline company, Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. While large amounts of inexpensive gas are available in Ohio and other Appalachian states, Columbia, whose pipelines carry fuel throughout the northeast, has refused to transport it.
Columbia is locked into several long-term contracts to buy natural gas from Louisiana and Texas, contracts with iron-clad guarantees that require the company to pay for a large amount of the gas whether it is used or not. Columbia entered into the contracts in 1978, at a time when it feared a repeat of the 1976-77 shortages, according to Columbia officials.
Despite legal challenges to the price increases, which consumers will pay this winter, FERC so far has not ruled on the cases.