About 650 complaints from natural gas customers in Arkansas have led Attorney General Tim Griffin to reach out to the chief executive officer of Summit Utilities to find out why Arkansans are experiencing overcharges and billing problems.

Griffin issued a consumer alert Tuesday to update Arkansans on the issue.

“At this point it appears to be a mess,” he said, noting there are overcharges as well as billing and data complications. “There are several forces coming together at once that have made this storm.”

Griffin said his objective is to recover any excess charges Arkansans receive. Griffin said he had a phone conversation with Summit Chief Executive Officer Kurt Adams on Monday to dig into the billing complaints.

“Here’s the bottom line: in the end he assured me that no one is going to pay for anything more than what they used,” Griffin said, adding that Summit customers who have overpaid will get a credit.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission received 223 Summit-related complaints in January, according to Jeff Hilton, spokesman for the regulatory agency. Complaints chiefly focused on high bills, not receiving a bill and the inability to speak with a representative or access online accounts.

“Approximately 127,000 Summit customers in Arkansas received an incorrect bill resulting from a data processing issue when importing meter readings into Summit’s system,” Hilton said in a statement Tuesday. “Although the meter readings were accurate, estimated usage based on January 2022 volumes were inadvertently processed.”

The company has assured the PSC that the problems have been corrected, Hilton said.

Summit, based near Denver, has 425,000 business, commercial and residential customers in Arkansas. “A lot of people are impacted,” Griffin said in an interview Tuesday. “This affects anyone getting their gas from Summit Utilities.”

Primarily, consumers are complaining about potential overcharges for home heating, Griffin said. “The thing that’s getting the most attention is the elevated amounts of these bills,” he added.

The attorney general has asked for information about the factors driving the billing complaints: potential billing errors, an issue with estimates versus actual costs and whether billing is increasing because of rising natural gas prices.

“He was very forthcoming on the phone,” Griffin said of his conversation with Summit CEO Adams. “He acknowledged there’s a variance between the estimate and the actual [billing].” Adams, according to Griffin, said the gap between estimated billing and actual consumer charges is “not great.”

Other problems are related to the transition from CenterPoint Energy’s billing system and Summit’s use of billing estimates rather than actual monthly gas costs for consumers, though Griffin said the company assured him the estimates are close to actual costs. “That caused some confusion because that’s not normally done,” he said. “That made people question what’s going on.”

Summit said Tuesday that the billing problems have been corrected and customer response times have improved.

“We’ve remedied this issue,” said Brian Bowen, senior director of external affairs for Summit in Arkansas. “We immediately addressed the issue, issued new bills, and have taken steps to prevent this issue from occurring again.”

Bowen, in a statement, emphasized that the company only passes through costs to its customers — it does not add fees or charges to inflate profits. “Summit does not make a profit off the cost of gas,” Bowen added. “Our customers pay what we pay.”

Costs are fueled by supply issues related to the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and higher demand driven by colder weather and an increasing reliance on natural gas to produce electricity, the company said.

“The single contributing factor causing bills to go up is the commodity pricing of gas,” Bowen said. “This is a national issue.”

The Russia-Ukraine war has changed distribution and consumption patterns, the company said.

“Due to the war, the United States is exporting large amounts of natural gas to Europe, meaning Arkansans — and families throughout the rest of the country — are competing with the international markets for the same products,” Bowen said.

Summit, Bowen said, has informed Arkansas officials the billing problems are corrected.

The company has been cooperative regarding his office’s inquiry, Griffin said.

“We’re getting all the information we’re asking for,” he said. “It’s their plan to only charge people for what they use. We’re going to make sure that’s the case.”

Summit customers have been complaining about billing problems, higher costs and difficulty reaching the company for answers since billing systems and other technologies were converted to the utility’s system on Nov. 1.

Summit entered the Arkansas market in January 2022 with the acquisition of CenterPoint Energy Inc.’s assets, including customers and infrastructure in Oklahoma and in Texarkana. CenterPoint continued to handle billing until the systems conversion in November.

In a statement Tuesday, the company said higher bills are not related to Summit’s acquisition of CenterPoint.

Arkansans can get more detail through the consumer alert Griffin’s office issued Tuesday. Click here for details: https://arkansasag.gov/news-events/attorney-general-alerts/.

Summit owns natural gas distribution and transmission subsidiaries that operate in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. It operates utilities that serve customers of Arkansas Oklahoma Gas, Colorado Natural Gas, Summit Natural Gas of Maine, Summit Natural Gas of Missouri and Summit Utilities of Arkansas.

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By Samy