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Puget Sound Energy gas customers want to disconnect from proposed rate hike

caption: Construction under way at Puget Sound Energy's liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma in May 2019
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Construction under way at Puget Sound Energy's liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma in May 2019
John Ryan / KUOW

Washington state’s largest utility wants to raise its customers’ rates to pay for a liquefied natural gas plant on the Tacoma waterfront.

Some Puget Sound Energy gas customers say they shouldn’t be forced to pay for a plant that mostly benefits cargo ships leaving the Port of Tacoma.

Every commenter at a November hearing of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, which sets utility prices, spoke against the proposed 3.5% rate hike.

“I'm very concerned that vulnerable people who cannot afford rate hikes are going to be asked to pay for something that never should have happened,” said nurse practitioner and Puget Sound Energy customer Maia Syfers of Vashon.

RELATED: New regulations to push WA homes away from fossil fuels

Environmental groups and the Puyallup Tribe tried for years to stop the 8-million-gallon, 14-story-tall tank for super-cold gas from being built.

It started operations in February 2022.

“The Utilities and Transportation Commission can stop approving rate increases that force customers to pay for new or expanded fossil fuel infrastructure,” climate activist and Puget Sound Energy customer Iris Antman of Seattle said. “The time for fossil fuels is over. It goes against the consensus of scientists and public policymakers to expand fossil fuel infrastructure in this time of climate breakdown.”

“Due to taxes and inflation, this is absolutely the worst time to even consider adding a rate,” said Puyallup resident and Puget Sound Energy customer John Davis, who added he did not agree with environmental arguments against the plant. “There's a lot of folks that barely can make their energy bills.”

RELATED: Seattle bans natural gas in new buildings

Puget Sound Energy wants land-based gas customers and shipping companies to split the project’s cost 50-50.

Lawyers for the utility, the Puyallup Tribe, and the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, which represents consumers, have been arguing before the commission over local ratepayers’ fair share of the project’s costs.

Most of the plant’s fuel is being used by two Tote Maritime Alaska cargo ships that sail between Tacoma and Anchorage.

A smaller portion goes to local Puget Sound Energy customers on unusually cold days when home and business heating needs spike.

Utility officials say most of the tank’s capacity is occupied by gas stored for “peak shaving” on occasional cold days, even though the Tote cargo ships burn much more of the gas on an annual basis.

When asked how much of the tank’s gas has gone to maritime or other customers, Puget Sound Energy spokesperson Andrew Padula did not directly respond.

“It was used several times in February when we had temperatures in the 20s; with much of that used for providing heat to customers in the Tacoma area,” Padula said in an email.

RELATED: Despite opposition, feds approve increased gas flow through Eastern Washington pipeline

Utilities and Transportation Commission staff say they discovered “multiple” occasions when the plant handled more than the daily 250,000 gallons of gas allowed under its permit from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

“Commission staff finds it unacceptable for rate payers to fund operation of the Tacoma LNG Facility when it is not compliant with PSCAA permit restrictions,” commission analyst Betty Erdahl testified to the three-member commission in September.

Utility officials deny that the Tacoma plant is producing more gas than allowed.

Puget Sound Energy provides natural gas to more than 800,000 customers in six Washington counties and electricity to 1.1 million customers in Island, King, Kitsap, Kittitas, Pierce, Skagit, Thurston, and Whatcom counties.

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