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Colorado AG asks federal regulators to probe traders’ “windfall” gas profits from February cold snap

More Colorado utilities filed documents explaining how big the hit to consumers’ pocketbooks might be, including up to $552 for some Black Hills Energy customers

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The 290,000 Colorado customers of Black Hills Energy could face up to $552 in surcharges over two years to pay for fuel-price surges during the Presidents Day weekend record cold snap, according to new filings with the state Public Utilities Commission. 

Attorney General Phil Weiser, meanwhile, called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to investigate the February storm on behalf of consumers, with special attention to news reports that traders booked a $210 million “windfall” profit from spiking natural gas prices. 

And the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel said Gov. Jared Polis’ apparently unprecedented intervention in the PUC probe was asking the right questions, and that the OCC would continue to press for answers in defense of ratepayers facing steep bills.

Colorado Natural Gas, which pipes fuel to a smaller number of Front Range communities, also said in new filings its customers would be asked for storm surcharges comparable to what Xcel and other utilities are seeking at the PUC, though it did not break out a 24-month average cost for consumers. 

Tri-State Generation, the state’s second-largest utility with dozens of cooperative members, said Tuesday it would not have to increase wholesale prices to members as a result of the storm, making it the exception so far among the state’s power generators and distributors. 

The new documents, which apparently met PUC deadlines Friday for companies to explain themselves as part of a special storm-related price investigation, were not uploaded to the regulatory agency’s public record until Monday. 

In the narratives of how they prepared for the mid-February cold streak and were pummeled by high spot prices, the utilities underline the economic impact of the storm by disclosing they have each sold new equity or taken on new debt just to pay for fuel costs from the three-day weekend. Black Hills disclosed $800 million in new short-term borrowing for the February gas purchases. 

The utilities have a right to seek pass-through costs for fuel, but at the unusual urging of Polis, the PUC has first asked for detailed explanations of whether the utilities did all they could to keep costs down.

Black Hills Energy, following on previous disclosures by Xcel and others, said in its filing that residential gas customers may have to pay $153.60 to $444 extra over 24 months just for gas during the mid-February storm. Electric customers may be asked to pay $4.50 extra a month for 24 months, or $108 total, for higher generation costs. 

Only a small percentage of customers get both gas and electricity from the company, Black Hills said in response to questions Tuesday.

Investigators will drill into how much of their cheaper pre-stored gas Colorado utilities drew down to cut costs, where and how they bought higher-priced spot market gas, and whether consumers were warned ahead of time about potentially high bills or just given standard advice about saving energy. 

Federal energy storage reports compiled weekly show mountain states drew down far less of their available stored gas than states, like Texas, in the south central region. The PUC, urged on by both Polis and the OCC, wants to know why utilities didn’t use more stored gas bought at $3 or less per unit rather than blow their fuel budgets on spot gas that surged to hundreds of dollars per unit. 

The Attorney General’s office wrote to federal regulators Tuesday asking that they also look into questions of market manipulation and spot trading costs that sent Colorado utilities in search of nearly $1 billion in additional charges to consumers for the February storm alone. 

“Should FERC determine that market participants engaged in fraudulent or manipulative behavior that improperly drove up short-term profits and impacted the price of natural gas for utilities serving Colorado, we request that FERC disgorge any illegal gains and accord refunds, as appropriate, to those utilities, thereby protecting Colorado consumers from such manipulation,” Weiser said in his letter. 

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