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Rural gas-line measure now up to the governor

A measure that will help Utah's rural areas get natural gas service - and may boost gas bills for all customers of Questar Gas Co. - needs only the governor's signature to become law.

The state Senate approved HB180 on a 25-1 vote late last week. The bill will let Questar, formerly Mountain Fuel, seek a rate increase of up to one-fifth of 1 percent from the Public Service Commission to cover costs of extending service to rural parts of the state.Bill sponsor Rep. Thomas Hatch, R-Panguitch, said Gov. Mike Leavitt's signature will clear the way for Questar to extend gas lines to his town.

About 600 Panguitch residents already have agreed to pay an extra $30 a month for 15 years to pay part of the $3.2 million cost of the project. An overall rate increase would help pay for the portion not covered by residents.

"Assuming the governor does sign it, I think we would hope to be laying pipeline this spring," Hatch said Tuesday.

Questar officials have said HB180 could lead to an increase of $1.10 or $1.20 per year in everybody's gas bill, depending on how many rural areas want the service, how much gas they use and how quickly they grow.

Claire Geddes, spokeswoman for United We Stand Utah, opposed the bill. She has said people's utility bills should not be used to pay for economic development of rural areas and the state should not show preference for Questar over providers of other fuels, like propane.

"The new thing on our bills better say, `Ratepayers beware,' " Geddes said Tuesday. "The Legislature is now doing the work of the Public Service Commission. . . .

"I don't think they had any concern for the ratepayers. They've asked every ratepayer in the state to subsidize Questar, when their profits are pretty good."

But Hatch said much of the opposition to the measure was based on misinformation. Some people erroneously stated that the proposal could lead to a $1.50 monthly increase in gas bills, he said.

"I think the thing that probably sold the bill more than anything else was, you know, if we're going to expand the population outside the Wasatch Front in this state, then we're going to help with placing infrastructure in some of these rural areas of the state," Hatch said.

In addition to residents of Panguitch, Hatch said, others living in the area around Bear Lake in northern Utah, in the area south and west of Utah Lake and in the town of Springdale have expressed interest in using provisions in the bill to help secure gas service.