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House OKs new natural gas pipeline

ATLANTA - Georgia's largest gas utility could be on its way toward passing on to customers the costs of building a $300 million planned pipeline with limited oversight from the state Public Service Commission.

The House passed legislation Wednesday authorizing Atlanta Gas Light to seek PSC approval for a pipeline to move imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) from a terminal on Elba Island near Savannah to Atlanta.

The bill, which passed 110-59, now goes to the Senate.

The measure was generated by a legislative study committee that began considering the potential of LNG as an alternative gas supply for Georgians after hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted the flow of gas from the Gulf region last September.

Energy analysts predicted that shortages would send gas prices skyrocketing this winter. While heating bills have gone up, the increase hasn't been as sharp as was anticipated.

The Elba Island terminal is one of only four in the U.S. that receives LNG imports, primarily from Trinidad.

"This big hurricane that came rumbling through the Gulf showed us how vulnerable we are in the energy world,'' said House Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, who chaired the study committee. "We concluded we better take advantage of this unique opportunity that we have.''

Burkhalter said studies have shown that the pipeline would save Georgia gas customers $50 to $75 a month by increasing Georgia's natural gas capacity. The utility would, however, recoup some of the cost of building the line by spreading the tab - via a surcharge - to its customers.

But some Democrats complained about provisions in the bill that would limit the PSC's authority to review Atlanta Gas Light's proposal.

Under the legislation, the commission would have only 30 days to hold a public hearing on the project.

The PSC then would have to vote up or down on the proposal without being able to make modifications. If the commission doesn't vote within 90 days of the project's filing, the work would be approved.

Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, said taking away the PSC's power to make modifications, including how much of the project's cost the utility could recover from ratepayers, would rob the commission of its ability to protect customers.

"The role of the PSC is to make sure the best interests of you all and your constituents are best served,'' Thomas told his colleagues.

But Rep. Jeff Lewis, R-Cartersville, the bill's chief sponsor, said Atlanta Gas Light must be given assurances that the project will go forward before committing to such an expensive undertaking.

"Nobody's going to go out and invest hundreds of millions of dollars if there's no guaranteed rate recovery,'' said Lewis, chairman of the House Public Utilities and Telecommunications Committee.

Democratic Reps. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, and David Lucas, D-Macon, attempted to amend the bill.

Oliver sought to do away with the PSC's current practice of allowing commissioners to hold off-the-record conversations with utility officials, which she said is prohibited in 48 states.

Lucas' amendment called for the state to re-regulate natural gas. The General Assembly deregulated the gas industry in the late 1990s, with supporters promising it would create more competition and, thus, lower costs.

But Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, ruled both amendments out of order, so no vote was taken on either proposal.