By The Associated Press

(Wed. January 31, 2001) Consumers Gas Utility Co. can raise rates it charges its 8,500 customers, the state public Service Commission says.

The commission issued the rate increase order Monday; it is effective for natural gas service rendered beginning today.

Consumers gas serves customers in Putnam, Jackson, Cabell, Ritchie, Roane and wayne counties.

"The harsh winter and escalating gas prices across the country have required the PSC to grant this increase," said david Ellis, chief advisor to the commission. If natural gas costs decrease, the company will be required to lower its rates, Ellis said.

The rate increase should raise the average residential customer's bill by $22 per month, the PSC said. The increase allows consumers gas to charge $5.98 per thousand cubic feet of gas, up from the current $4.29.

"While the increase is considerable, the companies must be permitted to recover the money they prudently pay to buy natural gas supplies, in order to continue providing utility service," the PSC's order states.

The commission also ordered its staff to review the company's purchasing practices. A public hearing on the matter has been set for 10 a.m. April 12 at the PSC's Charleston office.

Nationally, natural gas prices increased by about 137 percent between September 1998 and September 2000, according to the U.S. Department of energy. The cold winter - the most severe following several mild winters - has increased demand further, sending gas prices even higher.

About 90 percent of West Virginia's natural gas customers are protected from higher prices because of voluntary rate freezes agreed to by Mountaineer Gas Co. and Dominion Hope, the biggest companies operating in West Virginia.

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