Next month, area natural gas customers may feel like they stepped back in time.
Columbia Gas of Ohio Inc. said Thursday that its upcoming price for April has been set at 37 cents per hundred cubic feet (ccf), the lowest price that the utility has offered since 1998.
The price, which is 39 percent lower than last April's price of 61 cents per ccf, is also six cents lower than the March rate of 43 cents per ccf. It is based on a Nymex index closing price of 22 cents plus a state-approved fee for delivery of 15 cents.
Next month, the average residential bill is expected to be $61.59, or $23 less than the average bill a year ago, Columbia Gas said.
The utility also said that starting in April, natural gas bills will begin reflecting the true supplier of gas to customers in Columbia Gas territory, although Columbia Gas still will transmit the gas, provide billing services, and handle emergency calls. Customers will see one of five names on their bills -- Delta Energy, DTE Energy Trading, Hess Corp., Interstate Gas Supply, or Volunteer Energy.
The decrease in price to 37 cents marks the first time in a decade and the first time since the arrival of the customer choice program that area gas customers have seen prices below 40 cents per ccf.
In 2000, consumers were still able to find one or two alternative suppliers offering gas for 30 cents or more per ccf, but for a variety of suppliers the benchmark 30-cent price hasn't been available since the late 1990s. In August, 1997, for example, the former Keyspan Energy Services and Miami Valley Resources were offering a price of 30 cents per ccf, while some companies offered rates as low as 25 cents per ccf.
Rates have not been as low as 30 cents since 2000, but on Thursday they fell to a 10-year low after U.S. supplies of natural gas surged.
A government report showed that natural gas inventories expanded well beyond what analysts expected.
The country's total supply grew by 57 billion cubic feet last week to a level that's now 59 percent above the five-year average.
There's enough gas in storage to supply all the country's needs for more than a month, and analysts say storage facilities across the United States will be pushed close to capacity in coming months.
Natural gas futures plunged by 13 cents, or 5.7 percent, to $2.15 per 1,000 cubic feet in Thursday afternoon trading.