By Karlee Weinmann, a researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog organization. She lives in Minneapolis.

Minnesota's largest gas utility, CenterPoint Energy, warned customers that they should expect to see higher bills this winter, even as the company continues to promise higher profits for shareholders. Now those bill spikes are here, and they fall the heaviest on those who rely on low or fixed incomes – the same people already struggling the most with inflation.

The predominant factor driving the bills upward is the soaring price of methane gas, or natural gas, which many families use for heating and cooking. Methane gas prices spiked last year after Russia invaded Ukraine – an upheaval of our global energy system that illustrates the volatility of fuel markets, and especially of methane gas. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has said it expects the price of gas to remain high this heating season, and locally those costs will fall entirely to CenterPoint customers. The company itself remains fully immune from the price swings.

CenterPoint, meanwhile, told its shareholders last fall to expect a 9% increase in earnings per share for its investors in 2022 compared to 2021. CenterPoint delivered $1.4 billion in profits to its shareholders the previous year as customers’ bills skyrocketed.

Even as customers’ struggles mounted, as thousands fell behind on heating bills, CenterPoint CEO David Lesar called 2021 "a great year." For his part, Lesar locked in $37.8 million in compensation, far outpacing executives at peer utilities, and landing him among the highest-paid executives in Minnesota and in CenterPoint’s home state of Texas.

Unfortunately, there are strong indications that high prices for CenterPoint customers are here to stay.: “Americans for years enjoyed low price natural gas,” Mark Wolfe, head of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, recently said. “I am afraid that era is now over.”

According to a recent survey, 69% of oil and gas executives “expect the age of inexpensive gas to end” as the U.S. ramps up methane gas exports, tethering its domestic supply of methane gas to pricier global markets.

When CenterPoint pipes methane gas to homes for heating and cooking, it passes the full costs of that gas through to its customers, thanks to a Nixon-era regulatory norm that persists today. Because of that, utility investors don’t see gas price volatility as a direct risk to their profits. Like its investors, CenterPoint’s executives have appeared comfortable saddling its customers with all the risk.

Last year, CenterPoint was among Minnesota gas utilities that asked State utility regulators to force customers to cover $660 million in extraordinary charges incurred during a February 2021 winter storm, despite State agencies’ findings that it was the utility companies’ mismanagement of the crisis that unnecessarily drove up costs. Regulators ultimately shifted about one-tenth of the total tab, $58.5 million, back to the utility companies, including $35.7 million to CenterPoint. Utility customers remain on the hook for the rest, and those costs will be added to monthly bills over the coming years. CenterPoint filed an appeal requesting that regulators reconsider their decision and saddle customers with the full costs. The appeal was ultimately denied.

The status quo is untenable. The days of “cheap” gas are over. Government utility bill assistance programs already in high demand will further strain as costs continue to rise. More CenterPoint customers will be forced to choose between paying their increasingly high utility bills and buying medicine or putting food on the table, while the company and its shareholders enjoy a healthy bottom line.

While customers should take advantage of payment assistance options, sign up for winter protection rules to prevent disconnection, and ask for free energy-efficiency products from CenterPoint, it is also up to regulators at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to force utility companies to share the burden of these higher methane gas costs with their customers.

The Public Utilities Commission should also be ambitious and creative in its efforts to support the expansion of zero-fuel technologies like wind and solar, as well as expanding access to smart building electrification technologies like heat pumps, all of which will decrease the risk that expensive methane gas poses to customers in the long-term.

Big-picture action that holds utilities accountable not only staves off the hardship confronting our communities today, it supports a more resilient energy system for the future