The utilities warned that Ohioans are in store for sticker shock with their heating bills, particularly if a harsh winter rapidly drains reserves stocked at lower prices over the last few months.
Columbia Gas, serving 1.4 million Ohioans in 64 counties, has raised its rates 32 percent since October, 2004.
"High natural gas prices will only come down and stay down when significant new gas supplies are brought to market," Columbia Gas President Jack Partridge told the House Public Utilities Committee. "This means opening up for exploration and production lands that are currently off limits. This is a politically unpopular option, but the only realistic option in the long run."
Even as late September temperatures climbed into the 80s, the committee is holding a series of hearings on natural gas supplies and price spikes. The utilities, however, said the real battle must be waged at the federal level.
Meanwhile, lawmakers and Gov. Bob Taft are considering using some of roughly $600 million in surplus federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds not earmarked for other purposes to expand assistance to low-income families in paying home heating bills.
"Today in Ohio a mother of two children who is working full-time earning the minimum wage of just $5.15 an hour, which hasn't been raised since 1997, is living at 57 percent of the federal poverty level and earning less than $11,000 per year," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.
"This mother cannot afford the forecasted price for home heat," she said.
Mr. Taft issued an executive order in 2003 that reinforced the state's ban on drilling on Ohio's side of Lake Erie. Congress extended the ban permanently for all of the Great Lakes in the recently passed energy policy bill.
Taft spokesman Mark Rickel said the governor remains opposed to Lake Erie drilling.
"It would require legislative action to change that law and, at this point, there's no proposal to do that," he said.
Rep. John Hagan (R., Alliance), the committee's chairman, said he supports Lake Erie drilling, believing it can be done without endangering the environment or recreation.
"If we didn't have the will to open our Ohio public lands to drilling, would a message from us to Congress saying you guys need to back off on your restrictions on Lake Erie mean anything?" he asked. "I think the first thing we need to look at is whether or not we open some of our public lands to drilling. There's certainly lots of reserves there also."
Mr. Partridge said an estimated 1 trillion thousand-cubic-feet of natural gas, enough to potential serve Ohio for 20 years, is under Lake Erie.
Jim Lynch, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the state has been in on discussions about opening up state-owned park or forest land to drilling.
"We're not opposed to drilling, but we want to make sure there isn't a negative impact on the environment and recreation," he said. "If the circumstances were right, it might be something we would consider."
Some drilling that was under way prior to the state taking over the land has been allowed to continue, but Mr. Lynch said there's no procedure in place to approve additional drilling on public land.
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