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New Jersey lawmakers urge regulators to reject gas hike

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(The Center Square) — New Jersey lawmakers are calling on regulators to reject a 24% increase in natural gas bills proposed by one of the state’s largest utility companies.

In a recent filing to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, New Jersey Natural Gas proposes to raise the amount it bills customers by $222.6 million, an amount that will help the company recoup an $850 million investment since 2021 to enhance the safety, reliability, security and environmental benefits of its delivery system and operations.

If regulators approve the plan, the monthly bill for the typical residential heating customer using 81 therms would rise by 23.6%, from $122.84 to $151.85, according to the company.

The company, which serves about 576,000 gas customers in the state, argues that it needs to raise its base rate to cover the cost of necessary upgrades to its operations and distribution systems.

“Our top priority is to safely and reliably deliver the energy our customers count on to heat their homes and run their businesses,” Steve Westhoven, president and chief executive officer of New Jersey Natural Gas, said in a statement. “The investments we make in our infrastructure reflect this commitment and the critical role our system plays in reaching New Jersey’s carbon reduction goals.”

But members of the Legislature’s GOP minority wrote to state utility regulators this week, urging them to reject the company’s “excessive” rate adjustment proposal.

“Approving the rate increase would blatantly deviate from the board’s mission statement to ensure affordable rates to all members of the public who seek such services,” Sen. Carmen Amato, Jr. and Assembly members Brian Rumpf and Gregory Myhre wrote in a letter sent to BPU President Christine Guhl-Sadovy.

The lawmakers said the correspondence was an “urgent outreach” on behalf of constituents “who are at risk of being harshly impacted” financially if the board approves the proposed rate increase.

“Certainly, the rate increase would represent a direct cost of living increase and would threaten the viability of many already struggling ratepayers to afford their current housing,” they wrote.

New Jersey is pushing an ambitious agenda to move its more than 9 million residents away from natural gas and gasoline to heat their homes, which is expected to increase consumer energy prices in coming years.

The state already has some of the highest energy costs in the nation, and consumer advocates say the higher prices this winter were tough on low- and even middle-income households, with the amount of people behind on their bills skyrocketing.

If approved, it would be the first time in two years that natural gas rates would rise. In 2022, state utility regulators approved double-digit rate increases for the state’s four gas providers serving millions of customers in the state. PSEG, which serves 1.9 million people across the state, was granted a nearly 25% increase, amounting to a $256.38 a year hike to the “typical” residential bill.

Energy industry officials have long argued that a lack of pipeline infrastructure partly constrains the Northeast’s energy market. They say the natural gas crunch has led to higher bills for ratepayers.

But environmentalists say building new gas pipelines will only deepen the state’s dependence on fossil fuel, whose emissions have been blamed, in part, for climate change. They want the state to accelerate a shift to wind, solar, and renewable energy.

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