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Minnesota PUC to formally investigate surge in gas prices

According to a press release from the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the PUC said some utilities bought gas at prices 50 times higher than average.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The state announced it will launch a formal investigation to examine the recent surge in natural gas prices.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted unanimously in favor of the investigation during a special planning meeting held Tuesday.

According to a press release from the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the PUC said some utilities bought gas at prices 50 times higher than average between Feb. 12 and Feb. 17.

“Our infrastructure provided warmth and electricity to Minnesotans throughout the severe weather event. We are just learning the economic fallout from this storm," said PUC Chair Katie Sieben in a press release. "As regulators, we will use every tool available to mitigate the impact to Minnesota utility customers. And, we will work cooperatively with state and federal partners to address the very real consequences this storm may have on utility customers’ pocketbooks. In the midst of this COVID pandemic, the last thing needed are additional bills hitting Minnesota families and businesses.”

The investigation will look at the potential impact the spike in prices may have, as well as ways to reduce costs for Minnesota residents, according to the release.

“In this investigation, Commerce’s role is to protect Minnesota residents and businesses, and to provide assistance if utility bills are high," said Commerce Temporary Commissioner Grace Arnold in a release. "Our review of utilities’ natural gas purchases as part of this investigation will ensure utilities were prudent. Households struggling to pay utility bills now can apply for energy assistance and weatherization programs offered through the Department of Commerce.”

During Tuesday's hearing, gas companies said that the impacts won't be evident immediately, but could take  "several months pending approval by the PUC."

RELATED: Senator Tina Smith seeks probe of natural gas price spikes during storm

In a statement released Tuesday night from Gov. Tim Walz, he acknowledged that the state will feel the impacts of last week's winter storm, however, it remains unclear just how much of an impact.

The statement reads:

“I, like so many around the nation, witnessed how last week’s cold weather led to a grid failure that devastatingly left families in Texas without reliable access to power and heat for days. Thankfully, Minnesotans did not experience prolonged energy shortages last week, a testament to the benefits of Minnesota’s effective energy planning and regulation and the skilled work of our frontline utility workers. Even so, it is clear the events of last week will be felt in our state. While we are just beginning to understand the implications of last week’s spike in natural gas prices, it is important that we work together and proactively to mitigate the impact on families and small businesses. I am glad the Public Utilities Commission is opening an investigation, and my administration, through the Department of Commerce, will advocate for Minnesota ratepayers during that process. Our administration is also working with municipal utilities as they navigate the challenges posed by last week’s events. This national natural gas price spike will likely require Federal assistance to address, and as such I will be reaching out to our federal delegation and the Biden Administration to push for additional resources for Minnesota families and businesses—many of whom are already struggling financially from the COVID-19 pandemic—to help reduce the burden of energy costs."

Over the weekend, Sen. Tina Smith called for a federal investigation into possible price gouging as a result of last week's storm.

Minnesota customers who need assistance paying for their utility bill can contact the Department of Commerce Energy Assistance Program at 800-657-3710 (Press 1) or go online to learn more about the Commerce Department’s Energy Assistance Program.

If you're having issues with your service, you can contact the PUC Consumer Affairs Office at 651-296-0406, 1-800-657-3782 or email consumer.puc@state.mn.us.