Members of a small, rural Harrison County church are finding success in a battle with Centerpoint-Entex to maintain natural gas service.
Canaan Missionary Baptist Church launched an online petition, addressed to officials with the Railroad Commission, urging them to reject Centerpoint’s application to abandon service to a dozen residential customers and two commercial customers, which includes the church.
The congregation also filed an official protest in response to Centerpoint’s request.
The Railroad Commission of Texas Hearings Division sided with Earnol Brewster, a trustee of the church, who launched the petition and filed the protest on behalf of the congregation as well as his own household.
“We did win the first round of this,” Brewster said. “The administrative law judge ruled in our favor.”
However, “Centerpoint Energy is appealing right away. They’ve already filed for delay and for trying to appeal with this,” Brewster said. “The judge agreed with everything we said, pretty much. God is good.”
Brewster, who drove to Austin in December for the Railroad Commission’s preliminary hearing, has been advocating on behalf of the affected customers since November.
When Centerpoint filed its application Nov. 8 to abandon service, Brewster followed up with a protest to the application Nov. 26.
“Over 80 years, Centerpoint has served the community and the church,” Brewster said. “It’s all about money and greed and loopholes and trying to go around.
“I’ve already told them this is environmental racism because they singled us out,” he said of the community made up of economically disadvantaged, minority and elderly residents. “They want to convert us to propane usage. It’s just so much more unsafe from what my research has shown. The potential of having problems with it are greater. So, that has alarmed me.”
Phillip Green, area manager for Centerpoint, said the company cares about its customers, which is why Centerpoint is offering to manage the conversion to propane, perform assessments of customers’ compliance and provide a full tank for the initial fill.
“If they choose not to go with propane, they can take the lump sum and then they’re able to convert to any other energy source of their choosing,” Green said.
To ease the concerns over propane use, Green said he brought in a sales representative from a tank company to meet with some of the church community to educate them on various cost-saving programs.
“We do sympathize with the customers in this entire situation, and we at Centerpoint, we love our customers. We’re trying to do everything we can to accommodate,” Green said.
Because of the protest, a hearing on the merits was held Feb. 15 to allow the utility to prove that the proposed abandonment is “reasonable and necessary and is not contrary to the public interest.”
The Railroad Commission of Texas Hearings Division issued its proposal for decision April 12, along with a proposed final order, denying Centerpoint’s application.
Centerpoint’s request to abandon natural gas service to the 11 residential customers and two commercial customers — Canaan and St. John Baptist Church — was spurred by a possibility that the type of gas it receives from its supplier may change and become unsuitable for Centerpoint’s customers if its supplier, Gulf South Pipeline Co., sells its interstate facilities to Tristate NLA. Related to that, Centerpoint, Gulf South and Tristate decided that service to those 13 customers must be converted to natural gas to propane. That decision was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July 2018.
During the Feb. 15 hearing, Centerpoint argued that abandonment for the impacted customers is appropriate because the quality of gas transported to these customers will change and become unsuitable for residential and commercial consumption, should Tristate take ownership of the facilities. Centerpoint also argued the estimated cost of connecting these 13 customers to nearby Centerpoint facilities to is too high.
The Railroad Commission of Texas determined that the proposed abandonment is not reasonable or necessary and not in the public interest.
“One company’s uncompelled sale of an asset to another company in a private transaction is the reason for this abandonment request,” the hearing division determined. “Making Gulf South’s interstate facilities suitable for sale, regardless the cost, is between the buyer and seller and need not involve the Railroad Commission or Centerpoint’s customers.”
The hearing division further noted that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s conditional approval of the abandonment by sale of Gulf South’s facilities was made based on representations by Gulf South that there would be no service disruption for Centerpoint customers.
“No one represented the interests of these 13 customers during that proceeding, yet Gulf South, Tristate, and Centerpoint together effectively arranged propane conversion on their behalf despite this option being far from a guaranteed outcome under Texas law,” according to the ruling. “In Texas, companies cannot decide to stop serving natural gas customers whenever they want ... Abandonment must be necessary and in the public interest, not simply the cheaper option to ready an asset for sale in a voluntary transaction between two companies. Here, Gulf South and Tristate can avoid service disruption, satisfy the FERC’s sole condition for the sale, and complete their private transaction by connecting these 13 customers to nearby Centerpoint gas lines.”
Further, Centerpoint did not prove that propane is the lowest cost available alternative energy source.
Brewster said he’s glad for the outcome, as it seems that Centerpoint had no intent on finding alternatives other than propane. He said the company refused to consider solar or wind energy when mentioned at a January meeting at the church between the parties and customers.
“They said that’s too expensive. But the judge ruled that they did have the resources if that’s what they wanted to do,” Brewster said.