Profits Over People

Do you remember a few months ago hearing about the bitter cold snap and all the people in Texas who got screwed by natural gas companies and received bills in the thousands of dollars?

Do you remember feeling sorry for those people and thanking your lucky stars you didn’t live in Texas?

Me, too.

Turns out, though, I’m one of them. :/

A little background:

I live in a small city and our only option for heat is to buy natural gas from the city (as well as water, sewer, and trash). They all come bundled together in my city ‘utility’ bill. Our typical monthly bill for those utilities generally ranges from $150-$215 month, depending mostly on our water usage. In January we used 83 units of natural gas, for which we were charged $58.60.

I live in the Midwest and we experienced the same cold snap back in February that most of the US did. We knew the cold was coming and we watched our consumption, choosing to throw on extra clothes rather than turn up the heat. Our area had rolling blackouts because electricity usage was higher than normal.

I expected our February gas bill to be a bit higher than usual, since we probably had used a bit more than normal for heat. And indeed, in looking at my February bill, we used 94 units, more than the 83 the previous month.

So, if you do some rudimentary math, you would expect my bill to be somewhere around $67 or so for gas.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my bill for gas was instead $961.34.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Yes, stock photo lady, I too was enraged. Upon calling city hall to inquire why my total bill (again normally between $150-$215) was suddenly $1100.00, I was testily informed that the city had to pay outrageous prices themselves, and they of course had to pass on this cost to consumers.

When I inquired further about exactly what prices were charged and why I wasn’t notified, I was treated to a heavy sigh and the statement that the city had posted the information on their Fakebook page. When I then inquired how people like me (who don’t have Fakebook) were given this information, I was told that newsletters were mailed out.

Now, I never received a newsletter. I was then testily told that it was posted on the city webpage. (Shocker, it wasn’t.) And, as a special kicker, the reason I didn’t receive the newsletter in the mail is because I receive an e-bill from the city (you know, to save the environment and not waste trees). Customers with e-bills received nothing because ‘their e-bill system doesn’t allow for the city to add attachments to the emails.’

Interestingly, my email from the city comes WITH MY BILL AS AN ATTACHMENT.

After recovering from the shock, I did some digging and found out that we were actually lucky. There are some customers in town who received bills ranging from $3,000 to $5,000! It’s completely insane.

Now, I get that the city didn’t want to have customer’s heat shut off during a bitter cold snap and they felt they had to pay the going rate. However, I’m fairly certain if they had asked any of their customers if they wanted to pay 100x the usual rate for natural gas, the answer from everyone would have been a resounding NO.

I saw a great analogy from another resident: If you drive up to the gas pump on Tuesday and gas is $2.50 per gallon, you fill up your car and go on your way. If you pull up on Wednesday needing gas, and the price is suddenly $250.00 per gallon, you find different solutions.

It’s not that we as consumers mind companies making a profit. However, price gouging in the middle of an emergency is just disgusting. My state does have a law that prohibits companies raising prices more than 25% during a state of emergency (which we were in at the time).

The kicker? Even if they take the gas companies to court and prove the companies broke the law, the law contains NO PROVISIONS FOR PENALTIES. So what do the companies have to lose? There are towns smaller than mine that may very well go bankrupt and disappear because of this situation.

And the gas companies? Well, I’m sure they’ve now got money to burn for the next emergency.

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