Blog: Major Gas Utilities Respond to Coronavirus Pandemic

Three of the state’s major gas utilities have announced assistance programs.

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A recent decision by the Texas Public Utility Commission to suspend electric service disconnections during the COVID-19 crisis made statewide headlines. Less publicized, however, are pandemic responses by the state’s major gas utilities.

The Texas Railroad Commission that oversees gas utility service has not mandated a broad COVID-19 disconnection moratorium similar to that enacted earlier by the Texas PUC for electric customers (see below). But three of the state’s major gas utilities on their own have announced temporary moratoriums along with other assistance programs.

For instance, the Houston Chronicle reported this week that CenterPoint, which provides natural gas service to 1.4 million customers in the Houston area, began suspending disconnections in mid March as the pandemic spread and many of its customers lost their jobs. CenterPoint has not yet announced an end date for the moratorium.

Company spokesman Alicia Dixon told the newspaper that residential and small business customers who can’t pay their bills should contact the company to discuss payment assistance or to obtain extensions for the balance owed. Customers can call the number on their gas bills or go to the company’s website for contact information.

Atmos, which serves more than a million customers in the area around Dallas and Fort Worth as well as parts of West and Central Texas, likewise has announced a temporary end to customer disconnections.  Atmos Energy also offers Budget Billing (which is based on a rolling, 12-month average of the customer’s bill) and it sponsors its “Sharing the Warmth” program with local non-profits in which customer donations are combined with company contributions for additional bill-paying assistance. Customers who need help paying their Atmos bill can find additional information at the company’s website, at this link.

Texas Gas Service, which serves a wide swath of the state, has suspended disconnection through April 15, according to several news outlets. Customers in need of assistance can call (800) 700-2443 for self-service or to speak to a representative.

Railroad Commission Action

Although the Texas Railroad Commission has not mandated a disconnection moratorium, the agency earlier recommended that gas utilities voluntarily suspend disconnecting residents facing financial constraints during the COVID-19 State of Disaster.

On April 8, the Railroad Commission also authorized utilities to create accounting mechanisms to track COVID-19 related expenses including, but not limited to, uncollected debt, employee personal protective equipment, occupational health costs and cleaning supplies.

“We will continue to work with utilities to help provide relief to residents facing hardships across Texas,” said Mark Evarts, RRC Market Oversight Section Director. “If utilities come to the RRC for rate change hearings in the future, we will thoroughly review the accounting of expenses accrued due to COVID-19 and determine whether they can recover those costs when their rates are set.”

The notice sent to gas utilities can be found on the Railroad Commission website at this link. 

— R.A. Dyer