Kansas government calls for investigation of natural gas prices

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The natural gas bill for a greenhouse and florist in northern Kansas is typically runs between $ 2,000 and $ 3,000 per month.

But after 10 days of extremely cold temperatures in February and warnings of energy shortages, the owner of Riverside Market and Flowers in Grand Rapids received a bill more than 30 times the normal.

Jan Bergkamp was left “in disbelief” by a $ 92,000 gas bill this month.

Disbelief was quickly followed by a grim feeling that a century-old business could fail over a utility bill.

“I said we just had to file for bankruptcy,” said Bergkamp, ​​67.

Bankruptcy would mean business closure and layoffs of employees Bergkamp said she had worked hard to survive the pandemic.

She filed a price hike complaint with the Kansas attorney general and contacted her state lawmakers and the governor’s office.

“Getting out of COVID where businesses are struggling… it’s like a death knell for many,” Bergkamp said. “What can still happen?” “

Bergkamp is one of the many business owners surprised this month with sky-high bills.

The Shawnee Mission School District announced that it received a bill for $ 1.6 million last week. And lawmakers acted quickly in early March to create a loan program for Kansas cities in danger of bankruptcy because of bills.

In response, Governor Laura Kelly sent a letter to Attorney General Derek Schmidt on Tuesday requesting an investigation and a public information campaign on the rise in natural gas prices. Schmidt, however, said the investigation has already started.

As the legislative session draws to a close, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce said it was work with lawmakers to find a quick fix.

When asked earlier this month if she believed price hikes had occurred with natural gas, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly said investigations needed to be done. In her letter, she took a firmer stand.

“I am concerned that instead of simply reacting to reasonable changes in the natural gas market, some suppliers may have taken advantage of extreme and hazardous weather conditions to charge unreasonably high prices,” Kelly said.

Kelly said her office had worked with stakeholders to find solutions to the bills, but called on Schmidt, a candidate running against her for gubernatorial post in 2022, to take on her assigned role in as attorney general and to investigate gas companies.

While the Kansas Corporation Commission investigating some suppliers, Kelly wrote, not all Kansas suppliers come under her jurisdiction.

“These entities are, however, subject to Kansas consumer protection law and your office’s statutory mandate to investigate and prosecute potential violations,” Kelly wrote.

In a response letter, however, the Schmidt said his office opened an investigation into the case on February 18. He is working to determine if a crime has been committed and if Kansas’ consumer protection law allows him to act, he said.

“Due to the complexity of the investigation, which involves many entities involved in the production, transmission and distribution of natural gas, and the time required for all entities to respond to inquiries, this investigation may take a lot of time, ”Schmidt said. wrote.

Last year, Schmidt launched a public information campaign educating the Kansans about their consumer rights and urging them to file complaints about price hikes on personal protective equipment and other COVID-related needs. 19.

A similar measure is not needed for natural gas bills because the situation is “significantly different,” Schmidt spokesman John Milburn said.

“During COVID, it was necessary to alert the Kansans to potential scams so that they could identify and avoid them and to hear from Kansans what types of scams were circulating so that we could investigate them,” Milburn said in a report. E-mail. “But there is no need to alert the Kansans to soaring natural gas prices – they are well aware of it, as we are.”

Under Kansas law, Schmidt can initiate a predatory pricing investigation if prices rise at least 25% above their normal level.

Such surveys can bring relief to Kansans like Bergkamp by recovering damages and securing restraining orders ending the alleged price hike.

In addition to her complaint to the AG’s office, Bergkamp said she hoped lawmakers could help her.

Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said he was working with lawmakers to craft a solution for business owners similar to loans given to localities.

“Ideally, this would be resolved before (the legislature adjourns next week) because the bills are now hitting businesses. Waiting a month probably won’t help anyone, ”Stafford said in an email.

This story was originally published 31 March 2021 3:26 pm.

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Katie Bernard covers the Kansas Legislature and State Government for the Kansas City Star. She joined The Star as a late-breaking journalist in May 2019 before joining the political team in December 2020. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.


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