NEW FOR WEDNESDAY: Natural Gas Could Be Available Locally By Fall If PSC OKs Acquisition

BERLIN — Conversion to natural gas in Worcester County could become an option as early as the fall depending on the final ruling of the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) regarding Chesapeake Utilities Corporation acquiring assets from the Eastern Shore Gas Company (ESG).

Citizen turnout for Tuesday’s PSC public hearing on the acquisition was light, although those who did comment were in favor of Chesapeake’s application.

Bringing natural gas into Worcester has been a subject of discussion for years. Chesapeake is poised to provide the resource for the county if the PSC grants the corporation permission to acquire franchises, assets, rights, and authority from ESG. The move will allow Chesapeake flexibility in offering new and better “energy options,” according to Jeff Tietbohl, director of natural gas distribution.

“We’re certainly trying to increase energy options across the peninsula as a natural gas provider. Safety and reliability of our distribution systems are paramount to the service we’re trying to provide,” he said. “We’re trying to help the environment by providing clean fuel; natural gas in environmentally friendly.”

Tietbohl addressed a common question with natural gas: costs. As properties opt to convert next year, rates will stay steady across the board for both natural gas and propane customers of Chesapeake.

“We’ll have the same rates for energy use whether they’re being served by natural gas or whether they’re being served with propane as it’s pretty critical to what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

Once natural gas becomes available, Tietbohl promised that all customers will see a significant cut to their energy costs even if they are still on propane.

“We’re going to try to blend the rates together on day one. We’re going to see an immediate rate reduction to everybody starting on day one, probably in the first year to the tune of 5 to 8 percent though it could be as high 10 percent savings off of your current bills in the first year,” he said. “As we introduce more natural gas into the system over the coming years, that rate percentage decrease will continue to climb the greater the savings will be over the foreseeable future in the next couple of years.”

The rate reduction overall starting from “day one” will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $850,000, added Tietbohl.

Counter-balancing those savings initially, at least to a degree, will be shared conversion costs that will be spread out among all Chesapeake customers in the area. By dispersing the price of converting across the network, Tietbohl pointed out that individuals will not have to confront overwhelming starting costs nor will they have to handle conversion themselves.

“You as an individual consumer will not have to go out and get a contractor yourself,” he said, adding that Chesapeake will have their own contractors.

The one area Chesapeake will not spread out conversions costs is with appliances that are outside of the home, including heated pools and any other structures in the yard that might use propane or natural gas.

Should the PSC approve the joint application between Chesapeake and ESG, the rates that Tietbohl mentioned will be subject to a “full-blown rate case” after 2 1/2 years when the numbers will be reviewed.

During the public hearing, which had roughly 30 attendeees, there were questions asked about the process of bringing gas into Worcester. However, there was also universal support to get that process rolling.

“This application is something that is very important to our citizens, it is very important to our business community,” said Bill Badger, director of economic development for the county.

County Commissioner Judy Boggs, who represents Ocean Pines, told the PSC that her community is behind Chesapeake.

“On behalf of myself and the people of Ocean Pines, we strongly support the acquisition of Eastern Shore Gas’ assets by Chesapeake Utilities,” she said.

Though he echoed Boggs, Ocean Pines resident Joel Marsden asked how disruptive installing a natural gas infrastructure into the county might be in regards to digging up roadways or private property.

“Will you have to dig up the streets to put in new pipes for natural gas and who will pay for this?” he asked. “If you have to dig up any part of my front yard to replace the pipe, will you return my front yard to the way it was? Will I have to pay for the pipes going in on my own property?”

Chesapeake will not know the extent of the infrastructure work that needs to be done for natural gas until the process begins, Tietbohl admitted. However, he promised Marsden that any pipes that need to be purchased will be factored into the shared conversion costs across the network and that if any private property is disturbed every effort will be made to restore it completely.

The PSC will consider the comments and evidence presented in this week’s hearings and is expected to reach a decision in the next few months.

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