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Utahns fight Questar fees for Price plant

They oppose consumers paying the costs for treating coal-seam gas

Two Utahns are battling Questar Gas over millions of dollars in costs associated with a natural gas processing plant near Price.

Roger Ball, the former executive director of Utah's Committee of Consumer Services, and Claire Geddes, a Salt Lake resident, last week each filed testimony with the state's Public Service Commission, urging it to reject a pending agreement that would charge customers nearly $6 million a year to treat natural gas reaching Wasatch Front homes, amounting to roughly $7 a year per customer.

Under Ball's direction, the consumer committee had fought the processing costs, alleging the Salt Lake-based utility created its own problems by allowing coal-seam gas into its system.

By 1997, the quantity of coal-seam gas had reached near crisis proportions, according to the committee, resulting in a rushed decision to build the processing plant. From 1999 to 2004, the plant's processing costs were passed on to customers.

Ball was fired from his post with the consumer committee earlier this year. Last month, the committee sided with Questar Gas and other state regulators in an agreement that would again charge Questar customers for ongoing processing costs from January 2005 through 2008.

"If the committee is not going to vigorously and effectively represent consumer interests in this matter, then I felt the need to do so, not least on my own behalf," Ball said. "The committee is mandated to represent consumers, and if it's not going to, maybe I can be of some assistance in representing consumers as well."

Calls to the consumer committee seeking comment were not immediately returned.

The issue made it to the Utah Supreme Court, which in 2003 ruled that the Public Service Commission had "erred by failing to hold Questar Gas to its burden of showing that the increase was just and reasonable."

That decision ultimately resulted in a $29 million refund to customers, amounting to about $37 for the typical customer.

Since August 2004, a series of technical conferences involving Questar Gas have been held to demonstrate to state regulators how the utility arrived at the decision to process gas.

Chad Jones, a spokesman for Questar Gas, said the case was never about whether the utility took the best action or the most cost-effective action but whether Questar "laid bare" the decision-making process to state regulators; whether it had shown them that the process "was the best process."

"Ball was still employed by the committee while all of these conferences took place," Jones said. "His own staff was persuaded. Bottom line, we've been battling this thing seven and a half years. No one has come up with a better solution. The committee now agrees after seeing the decision-making process that it is the best solution. Roger is dealing with the past. It's time to move on. We're dealing with the future."

The utility has consistently maintained that the plant was necessary to make new compositions of natural gas safe for burning in Wasatch Front homes.

Julie Orchard, a spokeswoman for the Public Service Commission, said it will give parties involved 15 days to respond to the petitions from Ball and Geddes. After that time, the PSC will issue a decision.


E-mail: danderton@desnews.com