Why are natural gas prices high? Utility companies, experts blame everything from weather to storage

Nationwide natural gas prices are down, on average it's about $2.80 per million BTU but in California it's closer to $20.

ByLeslie Brinkley KGO logo
Wednesday, February 8, 2023
Why are natural gas prices so high? Here's what experts say
Why are natural gas prices so high? PG&E, Southern California Edison and experts blame everything from weather to storage to the CPUC.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- If you've looked at your gas and electric bills recently - you know prices are skyrocketing.

Nationwide natural gas prices are down - on average it's about $2.80 per million BTU but in California that number is closer to $20. That's a 600% premium.

On Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom called for an investigation into the recent price spike.

And on Tuesday the California Public Utilities Commission or CPUC, held a special hearing to try to figure out why prices keep going up.

MORE: Here's how high PG&E says bills could get during this historically cold, wet winter in CA

The CPUC convened a virtual panel of utility and energy experts to troubleshoot the spike so that it doesn't happen again in subsequent winters. The four-hour meeting included only 15 minutes of public comment, like one resident who said, "This CPUC event brings the term gaslighting to a whole new level."

Some blamed the CPUC for not controlling prices but most experts blamed the wintery weather.

"There's more price volatility associated with weather," said Mark Pocta with Cal Advocates.

California imports 90% of its natural gas. Pipeline constraints certainly contributed to the price spikes but PG&E executives said patterns didn't indicate a need to inject more gas into storage.

MORE: Data shows one-fifth of SF metro area households are struggling to pay rising utility costs

The Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey shows that one-fifth of Bay Area households reduced or forwent basic necessities to pay an energy bill.

Utilities aim to fill storage reservoirs with natural gas in the summer when it's cheaper and pull down reserves in the winter. So there was a lot of debate over not enough storage.

"We're 33.4% below the five-year average and 28.9% below last year. And most all that deficit belongs to PG&E," said Michael Williamson, CEO of Williamson Energy.

"So what are some of the mitigations we can do to avoid this in the future? Absolutely number one is reducing our reliance on natural gas," said William Walsh with Southern California Edison.

MORE: PG&E customers could be hit with rate hike of more than $760 over 2 years

The CPUC made no decisions after hearing all the theories.

Governor Newsom sent a letter to the federal government Monday imploring them to investigate the wholesale pricing of natural gas in California for possible price manipulation. But short of that, customers are left to foot big bills although an accelerated California Climate credit of approximately $100 could be appearing on statements going out in March.

"People should not be faced with a choice of heat or eat," said Mark Toney with the Utility Reform Network.

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