Residents: natural gas expansion slow
by Anna Oakes
Matt Bagley, a resident of the New Market Estates neighborhood, said he and his neighbors have requested natural gas service from Frontier Natural Gas since 2009 and that recently the company has not responded to correspondence seeking information about the status of the request.
"Our issue is that as a neighborhood, New Market Estates -- which is less than a mile from the city center -- has been unable to get natural gas," said Bagley. "We're currently at an impasse."
Bagley asked the town to intervene and to request transparency from Frontier Natural Gas as well as the rationale behind its expansion plans.
"(Natural gas) would lower our energy costs by as much as two-thirds, which is a lot of money and money that can go right back into the community," he said.
Councilwoman Lynne Mason and Mountain Times Publications Publisher Gene Fowler are also residents of the New Market Estates neighborhood.
Frontier Natural Gas signed a franchise agreement with the town of Boone in 1997 and completed a transmission pipeline into Watauga County in May 2002. Frontier Natural Gas representatives last appeared before the council in November 2011, when Mason and other council members questioned the company's slow expansion into neighborhoods.
"This is a big issue for this area," Mason said at the time. "We have cold winters. A lot of people who rely on fossil fuels for heat. We've got to find ways to make it more accessible to people."
Mason said last year that expensive deposits required for extending natural gas service to residences was a major hindrance to expansion into neighborhoods.
"(It is) way behind on getting it to residences, but then we see long lines being extended to commercial," she said. "How do we make this more equitable?"
Town attorney Sam Furgiuele on Thursday said the town's franchise agreement with Frontier provided no authority to dictate to the company the locations or timelines of its expansion.
"Our own agreement doesn't have any teeth," he said. The 20-year agreement will expire in 2017, however, which could give the town leverage in agreement renewal negotiations. But, he cautioned, if the agreement isn't renewed, Frontier could pull its lines unless the town condemned them.
Frontier is one of six natural gas companies regulated by the N.C. Utilities Commission. Furgiuele said he reviewed the commission's regulations and that "I didn't see anything that mandated equal distribution or equal measures."
Natural gas companies are required to submit biennial Expansion Plan Reports with the Utilities Commission. Frontier last filed a report on Oct. 31, 2011. The company's service territory includes Warren County and five northwestern North Carolina counties.
"Currently, approximately 81 percent of the natural gas flowing through Frontier's system is used by industrial or large commercial customers," the report said. "The growth of residential customers has been slow and has not increased as quickly as anticipated. Even though the pricing of the natural gas commodity is competitive, the cost to convert equipment still impedes growth."
Councilwoman Jamie Leigh said she felt the council had little authority in the matter but encouraged neighborhood residents to file complaints with the Utilities Commission. The council voted to request an update from Frontier at its regular January meeting.
Frontier Natural Gas officials were not available for comment at presstime.