MACON — A winter storm that pushed several states into crisis, pushed a Missouri county into one of their own. The February polar vortex that collapsed Texas' power grid and water systems led to a historic increase in natural gas prices.
Macon Utilities, a Missouri company, said they were monitoring the weather, but didn't anticipate the severity of the storm.
"We were watching the weather with the polar vortex that was happening and we had received alerts that the temperatures were going to be cold," Stephanie Wilson, General Manager of Macon Utilities, said. "To the severity of wells freezing... because of the temperature — that was not known."
Wilson said the company spent their annual budget in less than four days.
"Gas was in the $2 per dekatherm range from February 1 through even the 9th. On the 10th, it started going up to $6 per dekatherm and on the 11th, it went to $14 per dekatherm. Then all of a sudden, it went to $225."
"For the storm, plus the end of February, we spent $2.1 million dollars, but that February bill should have been $300,000," Wilson added.
Ewell Lawson, Director of Government and External Affairs for the Missouri Public Utility Alliance, said utilities do plan for events like this.
"That's why many hometown utilities like Macon or Fulton or other cities that are citizen-led hometown utilities hedge their natural gas and electric supplies," he said.
Wilson said during the 14 years she's been with the company, this has never happened. Unfortunately, the cost falls on the customer.
"Instead of passing along the cost in one month, as we always do, it was decided to spread it out over three years to build back reserves so that we wouldn't create a hardship," she said.
Customers must pay for the surge over three years because the company's natural gas pipeline is based in Texas, one of the hardest hit states from the deep freeze. Paying the entire cost upfront is not an option because of the payment plan decided by the Board of Public Works.
"We can handle it, but it's not an efficient use of staff time to track that," Wilson said.
Some customers said the problem was in Texas so the responsibility should fall on their natural gas firm. Elvin Smith wrote letters to KOMU 8 which said the people of Macon and Macon Utilities are both victims.
"One victim does not try to shake down another victim for money, since they are both on equal grounds of being victims," Smith said.
The additional cost is adjusted each month because it's based on a customer's usage. Smith's highest monthly payment so far has been around $15.
He said the city of Macon made it clear − they will turn off your utilities if you don't pay − but this is especially hard on those living on a fixed income.
"Residents of Macon have moderate incomes," he said. "Some may have around $1,000 income for a month and those with less than $600 a month income or slightly over $500 are often older social security recipients."
Smith, along with Macon Utilities and MPUA, are demanding state and federal investigations into possible price gouging.
"I tried, but it just was wasted effort," Smith said.
"It's hard to see that there's not some level of market manipulation in the markets, and we can certainly see where it's possible," Lawson said.
"That's why the investigations at the federal and state levels are important, because of the big price jump," Wilson said.
The Missouri Attorney General's Office has not confirmed any pending investigations. However, the Missouri Public Service Commission sent KOMU 8 a press release which said an investigation opened in February due to the "cold weather event and its impact on Missouri investor-owned utilities."
As of May 24, the result of this investigation is still pending. In the meantime, Governor Mike Parson signed a $50 million emergency loan program bill for municipal utilities, which incurred "extraordinary prices" for wholesale electricity and natural gas in February.
"That fund is set up to allow hometown utilities to borrow against that $50 million over a five year period at 0% interest," Ewell said. "Essentially, that money is there to help smooth out the cost of the bills for customers."
Customers are still questioning the validity of the spike in natural gas prices, but it will take time to get answers.
"It's a wait and see situation right now," Smith said.