Gas battle continues: Will the case land in court or with PUC?
Arguments over whether or not a lawsuit against a natural-gas company should be addressed in court will continue next week.Attorneys for Kinder Morgan are expected to file a response about why a dispute with the cities of Aspen and Glenwood Springs should be taken up with the state’s Public Utilities Commission rather than with the court.The two cities filed a class action lawsuit against the natural-gas company in June, claiming that gas customers on the Western Slope have been paying too much for gas for years. Since gas expands at high altitude, local customers have to buy more natural gas to heat their homes than customers at sea level, the suit claims.But in Kinder Morgan’s response to the lawsuit, the gas company states the matter should not be before the court in the first place. The company’s initial response to the suit argues the dispute should be taken to the PUC.Last week the cities fired back, citing a case involving an insurance company that was sued for cheating its customers. In that case, the courts decided that although there is a separate body that oversees insurance regulations, the matter could be handled within the court system.Dan Watson, retail president for Kinder Morgan, said his company’s response to that assertion will be filed next week.”The difference here is that insurance rates and the claims they pay aren’t determined by a commission,” Watson said. “Our rates are approved by the Public Utilities Commission and are considered just and reasonable. I think the insurance analogy is quite weak, and they have a long uphill battle to prove that.”Aspen City Attorney John Worcester said he expected this argument from Kinder Morgan – obviously the company is going to disagree; otherwise they admit the court has jurisdiction in the case.”I think the case is directly on-point – the Public Utilities Commission is set up the same as [the Colorado Division of Insurance]. They regulate the insurance business,” Worcester said.Once Kinder Morgan files its response to the cities’ reply, Judge T. Peter Craven must decide whether or not to hear the case or to dismiss it. If it’s dismissed, the cities will have to decide if they want to appeal the decision.There are currently no discussions about reaching a settlement regarding billing procedures, since the matter of jurisdiction is still at stake. Worcester said if the case is dismissed by Craven, the gas company is in the strongest bargaining position; if the suit continues in the courts, the cities have a strong position.”But I’m not sure there’s a lot of bargaining room,” Worcester said of possible settlements. “Either they fix the way they bill customers or they don’t.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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