Summit Utilities, the Colorado-based company that acquired CenterPoint Energy’s natural gas network in Oklahoma and Arkansas in a $2.15 billion deal finalized in January 2022, has been in the news lately.
And up until the dismissal of a lawsuit last week, the news wasn’t good.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin has called for an Arkansas Public Service Commission investigation into billing problems Arkansans have faced since Summit took over CenterPoint’s gas operations and customers in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texarkana, Texas.
The company was also facing a lawsuit over gas bills in Arkansas, but the plaintiffs voluntarily asked for dismissal to provide the PSC a chance to consider their complaints. The federal case could still be refiled.
The plaintiffs had accused Summit of overcharging them.
Summit officials are happy to have the PSC hash out some 2,800 complaints that the attorney general says his office has received.
Summit has about 525,000 customers in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Lizzy Reinholt, senior vice president for sustainability, corporate affairs and marketing, says the company is doing better responding to customers, noting that the utility has strengthened its customer response staff and significantly cut call wait times.
She is also pleased that the PSC will be reviewing company practices.
“We are supportive of the investigation the Public Service Commission opened to review our billing and gas purchasing practices and feel this is the appropriate venue for that review,” Reinholt told Arkansas Business.
Reinholt predicted that complaints about high natural gas prices will most likely be mitigated soon by falling wholesale prices after a moderate winter nationwide.
She said that Summit does not make more money when gas prices are high. It passes along gas costs to customers through its tariffs, or rates.
“We know our customers are struggling with high energy costs and confusion related to our January data processing issue that impacted some customer bills,” Reinholt said, referring to problems the company had in shifting over some CenterPoint customers’ accounts. “As a utility, Summit does not profit from the cost of gas. Our customers pay what we pay.”
Reinholt said that Summit is required by its tariff to adjust the cost of gas on Nov. 1 and April 1 of each year through a PSC. The April adjustment should help because natural gas prices are falling.
“While markets remain volatile, we have seen a downward trend in the cost of gas across the country,” Reinholt said. “As a result, we expect that when we file for a new cost of gas at the end of this month, the price will come down.”
Griffin has called for an inquiry into whether Summit, which previously had far smaller operations than CenterPoint, had the expertise to buy natural gas at the best prices available.
He also said complaints against other Arkansas gas utilities were minuscule compared to the complaints against Summit.
However, complaints from Summit’s customers in Oklahoma have been much rarer per capita, and Oklahoma regulators found no improprieties in the gas prices Summit passed on to customers there.
Reinholt also said the company is scrambling to do right by Arkansans.
“We understand that customers experienced frustration with long call wait times in November and December,” she said. “As a result, we’ve hired additional 50 customer service representatives in Arkansas and Oklahoma since Nov. 1 and are in the process of hiring more.
“With our recent hires, the average call wait time for the last three weeks has been less than two minutes. If customers have concerns about their bill, we encourage them to call our customer service department. Our representatives are available Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to answer questions.”
Summit has about 425,000 accounts in Arkansas, court filings say.