Hard roads and high fuel bills | NevadaAppeal.com

Hard roads and high fuel bills

Barry Smith

It looks like Carson City and many of its residents should be qualifying for some kind of tax credit.

That’s because they’re apparently relying on solar energy for snow removal.

If you live in a neighborhood a couple of streets away from a main artery, it’s a good idea to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle – or preferably a Moon Rover – to make it over the icebergs that have developed since last weekend’s snowstorm.

That’s a nuisance, I guess. The main streets and highways are cleared, so it’s not that hard to get around as long as you’re patient and use a little caution coming up on intersections, some of which are more slippery than an ice rink and attract drivers who like to brake at the last second.

More dangerous, though, is the proliferation of unscooped sidewalks around town.

I see schoolchildren walking in the street because whole blocks are still untouched by homeowners’ shovels.

I realize most of the time we can rely on Mother Nature to supply enough sunshine and warm temperatures during the day that lazy people can just wait out their shoveling chores.

But the folks who didn’t get busy on Saturday or Sunday now find their driveways and sidewalks resemble glaciers, thanks to sub-zero temperatures at night.

The other problem with the cold weather is that natural-gas bills are going to be out of sight. My last one was already over $100, and it hadn’t even been really cold yet.

If the gas we put in our cars and trucks had the same kind of price fluctuations, we’d be screaming. Politicians would be demanding investigations. There would be calls for opening up more territory to drilling and easing restrictions on the industry because poor consumers couldn’t afford the cost of an essential fuel.

But natural gas for many of us is just as essential as gasoline. We don’t have much choice but to heat our homes at least to a comfortable level.

Imagine if there were signs on corners along Carson Street advertising the price of natural gas every day, like the gas stations post. We’d be astonished.

Gas companies like Southwest Gas buy their supplies in decatherms, and not too long ago – prior to 2001 – the price was somewhere around $2.50 to $3 a decatherm.

That year the price went crazy – up to $9.98 on the spot market – and our monthly gas bills began to rise proportionally.

So compare that to gasoline. Say you were driving past a gas station in 2001 and the price was $1.61 (about what it was then). But a few months later, when you pulled into the station you were pumping gas at $6.26 a gallon.

Think people would be crazy mad?

The same thing is happening this winter. The average rate for a decatherm in December was $7.41, and the high nationally was $8.75.

How does that translate for you and me?

Well, a month ago, Southwest Gas warned us that home-heating bills were going to be a lot higher this winter. The company figured an average customer’s bill (using 96 therms in December) was going to rise from $86.27 last year to $122.05 this December.

That’s an increase of 41 percent, if you were wondering.

Again, trying to put it into perspective of gasoline prices, it would be like the pump price suddenly going from $1.95 to $2.74 a gallon.

You can’t blame Southwest Gas for the market price of natural gas any more than you could blame AM/PM for the price of a barrel of oil. Southwest Gas is trying to make money, sure, but not at quadruple the rate.

When natural-gas market prices go up, Southwest Gas has to ask for a rate increase. Those are called “pass-along” increases, in which it simply charges customers the increase it’s seeing from its suppliers.

In fact, Southwest Gas’ last quarterly report showed a net loss of $16.4 million. But that’s a seasonal thing, and for the year its net income was up – from $41.8 million a year ago to $50.8 million.

Southwest Gas says it has been locking in long-term contracts, so it isn’t relying on the spot market. Otherwise, things could be worse.

I don’t know enough about the natural-gas market to say how prices should be held at some reasonable level. Apparently production is down, even though drilling is up. Our consumption of natural gas continues to outstrip production. Little of the natural gas used in the United States is imported, so we’re not yet dependent on foreign sources – but we could be eventually.

Northern Nevada isn’t a major natural-gas producer, however, I used to live in Southwest Colorado, where there are thousands of wells. It’s an environmental controversy. What isn’t?

For people like me, who want to stay warm but also don’t like seeing great tracts of land dissected into gas fields, the answer is to be as conservative as possible. By that I mean plugging the gaps around doors and windows. Wearing a sweater while I’m watching television in the evening. Changing the filters on the furnace regularly.

And hoping for nice warm sunshine – for the sake of our streets and our heating bills.

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at editor@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1221.