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Hot Springs commission pays $238,450 gas bill, calls it ‘price gouging

by Cassidy Kendall | April 30, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

HOT SPRINGS — The Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission has paid the $238,450 monthly gas bill it received for the Hot Springs Convention Center after February’s winter storm, but filed a complaint against its natural gas supplier with the Arkansas attorney general’s office accusing the supplier of “price gouging.”

Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison said the bill for February was paid “under protest” April 14.

Little Rock attorney Randall Bynum with Dover Dixon Horne PLLC filed a formal complaint on behalf of the convention center with the attorney general’s office April 19, saying the center’s natural gas supplier may have violated Act 367 of 1997.

The gas supplier, Symmetry Energy Solutions, denies the allegations, stating that they are “unfounded and reflect a misunderstanding of how the natural gas markets work.”

The Hot Springs Convention Center received the bill at the end of March, one month after record cold temperatures gripped the region. It was more than 2,000% what the center usually pays for one month and stemmed from using an independent gas supplier.

Arrison said March 26 that the ad commission would not pay the bill. On Tuesday, he said the commission plans to get back most of the money paid under protest.

“The main thing is we want to get our money back,” Arri-son said. “Hopefully we get this to a logical conclusion, and if not we will sue, but hopefully we won’t have to.”

“Winter Storm Uri severely disrupted natural gas supplies at the very same time that demand was very high because of the record-setting frigid temperatures,” a Symmetry Energy spokesperson said in an email Tuesday.

“This high demand coupled with severely limited supply caused the market price of natural gas to rise to unprecedented levels,” the email said.

“Symmetry is not a natural gas producer. Symmetry had to buy gas from producers and other suppliers at these same high market prices to fulfill the needs of our customers. Symmetry paid these producers and suppliers for the gas it supplied to customers during Winter Storm Uri. Now, Symmetry must pass the cost of this gas to its customers, some of whom are understandably upset about the high market prices. Symmetry is being squeezed between having to pay very high prices for gas during the storm and the difficulty for some customers to afford those costs.”

Amanda Priest, director of communications for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said Tuesday in an email that the office is investigating “many aspects” of the increase in natural gas and electricity prices that occurred in February, and these investigations are extensive and will take months to complete.

“On February 25, 2021, Attorney General Rutledge sent a letter to Arkansas Public Service Commission Chairman Ted Thomas asking that the Commission open an investigation of the cost of energy — power and natural gas — incurred by Arkansas’s electric and natural gas utilities during the recent severe weather event,” Priest said in the email.

“In addition, as indicated in her February 25 letter, Attorney General Rutledge has opened an investigation of potential price gouging by parties that are not subject to the commission’s jurisdiction. Due to the expansive damage from the historic storms, the Attorney General will continue to be actively engaged in discussions with other states about potential market manipulation of natural gas and electricity prices.”

Bynum filed the formal complaint for potential price gouging with the attorney general’s office, per their suggestion, on April 16.

“Historically, the highest natural gas bill the commission has received under its Large Volume Commercial Contract is $18,293.85 and its monthly natural gas bills are consistently under $10,000.00,” the complaint said.

The complaint said the commission has concerns that the bill is in violation of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and “wishes for the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office to investigate the matter in conjunction with its existing investigation of potential price gouging relating to energy prices during the February winter storm.”

Donna Gray, executive director of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, previously told The Sentinel-Record that the commission only has jurisdiction over non-transportation customers in gas utilities, such as residential or small commercial customers. Since the convention center has elected to be a transportation customer and work independently with Symmetry, Gray said the dispute is between them and the company they purchase gas from.

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