SoCal Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric customers' rates increased January 1. On the basis of industry forecasts, SoCal Gas customers can expect their bills to be around 45 percent to 55 percent higher this winter. For example, a typical single-family residential monthly bill could be around $115-$122 this winter, versus $79 during last year's cold season. The procurement component of SoCal Gas's core sales rate increased by 7.206 cents\/therm. It rose to 93.25 cents\/therm from 86.04 cents\/therm. The rise resulted primarily from an increase in commodity prices of 7.39 cents\/therm, or about 8.83 percent. Compared to a year ago, the procurement rate is about 57.3 percent - 33.981 cents\/therm - higher than what it was a year ago at this time. Michael Shames, Utility Consumers' Action Network executive director, blamed higher gas prices on "years of energy policy neglect at a federal level, questionable practices within the natural gas markets in the U.S., lax regulatory oversight, national and international demand for gas, and the two hurricanes that struck the Gulf region." SDG&E's three million-plus customers also can expect to see bill increases in the 45-55 percent range, said SDG&E spokesperson Peter Hidalgo. Shames disagrees with SDG&E's figures. "I believe SDG&E's estimate of 44-55 percent is overly high. I expect it will be closer to 30 percent when all is said and done," he said. The rate increases are being implemented near the time SDG&E announced it will receive roughly $31.8 million from Mirant Corp. for overcharges during the energy crisis of 2000-01. SDG&E filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2000 claiming that rates were unreasonable. SDG&E earlier this year received a partial cash settlement of about $21.4 million, while awaiting the results of its bankruptcy proceeding for an increased settlement. The additional refund amount of approximately $10.4 million will go into an account earmarked for customers. Although news of the $31.8 million settlement was revealed in late December, it's not expected to have an effect on customers' winter utility bills. "The short answer is that it puts downward pressure on rates," said spokesperson Ed Van Herik. "But there's no telling what rates will do." Van Herik did say that the money will find its way back to ratepayers in some form or fashion. "The money will be returned to customers cent for cent," he said.