AFTER YEARS OF RELIABLE service, increased demand and a peaceful transition toward competition, the natural gas industry is now in the national spotlight - due to rising prices. There is increased realization that energy is the lifeblood of our nation's economy, and we must take advantage of this fresh scrutiny to spread the word about the tremendous demand opportunities for our fuel. Recognizing this summer that consumers (and their elected representatives) don't like surprises, AGA developed issue briefs on supply, demand and pricing trends along with frequently asked questions - then distributed them to members of Congress, governors, state commissioners, mayors, journalists, customers and consumer advocates. All the materials are posted on a special "issue focus" section of the AGA web site.
The goal of AGA's aggressive national outreach is to educate opinion-leaders about why an imbalance in supply and demand led to higher prices, while emphasizing the abundance and diversity of natural gas resources.
But "all politics is local," as former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill used to say. So it's vital for natural gas utility executives to contact key constituencies to explain current market conditions. AGA encourages face-to-face meetings whenever possible because they lend themselves to broader dialogues about utilities' sophisticated gas supply practices, cost-cutting efforts, promotion of new end-use technologies and heritage of community service.
Business customers worry that rising prices indicate a long-term shortfall in supply, according to comments we heard from manufacturers and national retailers at the Natural Gas Council's customer summit in July. Unfortunately, too many natural gas utilities simply send out bills without ever talking and working with their customers. Market research conducted in 1997 by AGA and the Gas Research Institute (now GTI) found that respondents representing nearly half of the nation's retail space had no contact in the previous year with a gas utility representative. This winter, utility reps can provide AGA's Natural Gas Supply Fundamentals issue brief to help customers appreciate the long-term supply and potential of efficient, domestic natural gas.
During this election year, expect Congress to hold hearings on populist issues, such as energy prices. Help your congressional and state representatives to participate in oversight or respond to constituents' complaints by sharing your news releases and bill stuffers and thank them for supporting the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
During visits to state public service commissioners, mayors and city councils, describe your company's efforts to hold down distribution costs - through best practices such as improvements in leak detection, meter-reading, pavement restoration or emergency response programs. Finally, involve your consumer and community affairs staff in strategic planning. They're often your best ambassadors.
As temperatures get colder, the focus on natural gas prices will heat up. Let's be sure to frame the message before others frame it for us.
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