TURN doesn’t like last-minute gas giveaways

5% rate hike OKd for Southern California Gas customers

Almost 21 million residential customers of Southern California Gas Co. will see their monthly bills increase by about 5%, or $1.94, now that state utility regulators have approved a four-year plan to guarantee revenue collected by the nation’s largest natural gas distribution network.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday granted the unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy a rate increase totaling $1.95 billion for 2012 through 2015.

The amount is $84.83 million more than current revenue but $154 million less than the company asked for at the start of a lengthy legal proceeding, the commission said.

The initial 5% increase is largely retroactive, covering 2012 and more than half of 2013, the commission said.

Subsequent annual increases of 2.75% are projected for 2014 and 2015, Southern California Gas spokeswoman Anne Silva said.

Another Sempra company, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., which serves San Diego and southern Orange County, got the commission’s approval for a rate increase of $1.73 billion to operate both electricity and natural gas systems. That translates into an increase in the average monthly residential bill of 12.2% or $9.95, the agency said.

A major factor in the increase is the need to improve pipeline safety and reliability, Public Utilities Commissioner Mark. J. Ferron said. Inspecting and upgrading pipelines has become a top priority since the September 2010 rupture and explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gas main in San Bruno, south of San Francisco. The blast killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

“While we must do our best to contain costs, we do have to spend more on safety and reliability,” Ferron said in a statement.

A consumer group, the Utility Reform Network, however, accused the commissioners of conducting “fill-in-the-blanks” decision-making and not providing justification for some items, including $10.4 million for gas distribution, $7.4 million for engineering and $3.2 million for customer service.

“If the commission did the math, it would realize constant rate hikes place an unfair burden on consumers,” the group said.