Illinois AG's office goes after gas utilities for rate hike requests

The Illinois Attorney General's office slammed proposed rate hikes for Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas customers at a sparsely attended public hearing Thursday at the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The utilities, owned by Chicago-based Integrys Energy Group are asking for a combined raise of $134 million -- a 10.7 percent increase for Peoples Gas and a 3.6 percent increase for North Shore to deliver natural gas to their customers.

Karen Lusson, assistant attorney general, said the utilities are attempting to shift cost increases to a charge on consumer bills that does not vary based on natural gas usage. She said the change would unfairly strap consumers who attempt to conserve with proportionately larger increases than those who use more natural gas while giving all customers less control over costs.

"Customers everywhere are making ends meet with less," Lusson said.

Bonnie Johnson, spokeswoman for Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, said the utilities are facing economic pressures.

"The costs of doing business in today's economic climate continue to rise," Johnson said. "Specifically, the cost to maintain our extensive network of transmission lines, gas main and services lines increases every year, as do expenses associated with general office operations and employee health care and benefits."
She said the utilities run a number of programs aimed at helping struggling customers pay their gas bills.

North Shore Gas serves about 158,000 customers in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Peoples Gas serves about 818,000 customers in the city.

"Peoples Gas wants to slam its customers with $100 a year in extra costs, including a $28 per month customer charge, before they even use one therm of natural gas," said Jim Chilsen, communications director for Chicago-based Citizens Utility Board, a consumer advocacy group.

"The company has raked in $140 million in rate hikes in recent years, and its parent made $220 million in profits in 2010. In the middle of an economic downturn, Peoples Gas simply can't justify a $112 million pay raise."

A final decision on the rate hikes is expected Jan. 12, 2012.

The public can still comment on the case online at by clicking the "consumers" tab, then "comment on a case," or by calling 1-800-524-0795.