Sempra's regulated utilities will be asking the California Public Utilities Commission on October 27 to approve expanded assistance programs to help low-income families deal with natural gas price increases of up to 55 percent this winter. Low-income-household advocates applaud San Diego Gas & Electric and SoCal Gas for their proposals. However, some believe a natural gas price freeze ultimately will be needed to protect many low-income customers from the cold and to head off damage to the state's economy. "We are expecting record-high costs this winter," said Peter Hidalgo, SoCal Gas spokesperson. The average monthly household bill is expected to increase by between 45 and 55 percent by January, or from $79 last year to between $115 and $122 this January, he said. In an attempt to cushion the blow, Sempra's regulated utilities are proposing to increase the income threshold for participation in the California Alternative Rates for Energy (CARE) program from 175 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level to qualify more customers for the 20 percent discount. The utilities also want the commission to approve a natural gas hedging plan. Last week, regulators approved a hedging plan for PG&E this winter (Circuit, Oct. 7, 2005). In another move, the Sempra utilities are asking the commission to allow them to re-drill natural gas wells into two underground fields to tap stored gas they bought years ago at a low price. The costs avoided by withdrawing the gas instead of using gas purchased at today's market rates would be allocated to CARE customers, saving them a total of up to $48 million this winter, Hidalgo said. Sempra's utilities would draw up to 4 Bcf of the so-called "cushion gas" from La Goleta storage field in Santa Barbara County and the Aliso Canyon field in Los Angeles County, said Hidalgo. "The utilities are better prepared for the crisis than the mayor of New Orleans or the governor of Louisiana-but not much better," said Bob Gnaizda, Greenlining Institute general counsel, in assessing the proposals. "They're hoping that the crisis is relatively modest based on the forecast. It's quite possible it could be much greater." Gnaizda is worried that low-income customers will face a double whammy of high energy prices coupled with a return of the stagflation seen in the energy crisis of the 1970s, when inflation was coupled with slow or no economic growth. He projects that middle-income customers will be hurt and that upper-middle-class customers will express moral outrage. "Almost no one is going to accept a doubling of the rates," he said. That is why the Greenlining Institute and some other low-income-customer advocates are calling on the commission to freeze gas prices this winter and allow utilities to amortize their costs over a period of up to five years. Greenlining also is calling for utility executives to donate their bonuses and stock options toward low-income assistance programs, including the outreach needed to enroll people. Increasing eligibility for low-income assistance programs is needed, but the utilities should engage community-based organizations to conduct outreach, said Juliet Stone, Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California attorney. "The penetration in many immigrant communities is low," she said, and bill stuffers and advertising may not effectively reach many language groups in diverse Southern California. SoCal Gas has 1.1 million customers enrolled in the CARE program and SDG&E has 200,000 customers enrolled, said Hidalgo. He could not say how many more may be enrolled under the company's plan to expand the program. The Sempra utilities also are seeking to relax certification documentation requirements for the CARE program and to enable 84,000 more seniors and disabled customers to qualify for the program's discounts. However, Stone said that the commission also should put a moratorium on utility shutoffs this winter.