State to investigate spike in natural gas prices due to weather crisis in southern U.S.

Sen. Tina Smith is also calling for an investigation.
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The energy crisis gripping Texas is not without consequences for the rest of the country, including Minnesota — where heating prices are also on the rise.

The increase is enough that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has called a special meeting on Tuesday to investigate the matter. 

According to a release from the Minnesota Department of Commerce, natural gas prices in the state have "dramatically spiked over the past week due to national demand issues," so the PUC is seeking answers from a number of the state's utility companies: Xcel Energy, CenterPoint Energy, Minnesota Energy Resources, Great Plains Natural Gas and Greater Minnesota Gas.

All have been invited to answer questions about the spike in natural gas prices, including "how this will affect customer bills, the extent customer service was affected, and additional questions to assess economic impact for Minnesotans."

The Department of Commerce will represent Minnesota ratepayers at the meeting and present to the commission information on "the economic impacts of these commodity price fluctuations," the release says.

The PUC meeting may be just the beginning of the inquiries into what's going on in Minnesota.

Sen. Tina Smith (D) has also announced that she's calling for an investigation into "possible price gouging" by energy companies.

"While the worst of the crisis has been centered in Texas, the effects have rippled across the entire region, including in Minnesota," Smith said in a Saturday news release. "One such ripple effect has been in the natural gas markets, where natural gas spot prices have spiked, in some cases, to nearly 100 times typical levels."

She goes on to say that the price spikes could also "threaten the financial stability of some utilities that do not have sufficient cash reserves to cover their short-term costs of this extraordinary event."

The investigation Smith is proposing for would look into what happened in the natural gas market — "including any price gouging by natural gas producers and suppliers" — and produce a public report, along with "recommendations to prevent such problems in the future, and determine if laws have been broken."

Her proposal also includes invoking "any emergency authorities available," such as the Natural Gas Policy Act, "to allocate natural gas supplies at fair prices."

Additionally, she's calling for possible "financial support to the utilities and their customers that may be facing a cash crunch or rate increases as a result of the spike in natural gas prices."

At the epicenter of the weather crisis, in Texas, customers have seen astronomical increases in energy costs, with electricity prices soaring by 10,000%, CNN reports. 

The New York Times notes one resident who kept his lights on during the winter storm — and ended up with a bill for $16,752.

There are widespread reports of similarly exorbitant bills across the state, leading to a public outcry and an emergency meeting between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and state legislators this weekend. 

Investigations into the pricing crisis are now underway in the Lone Star State. 

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