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Staff for Florida regulators recommend continued gas hedging despite nearly $7 billion in losses

Some argue that Florida's big investor-owned electric utilities are just lousy at hedging, or betting, on the price of natural gas.

Are their $6.7 billion in hedging losses since 2002 — losses customers pay for through higher electricity costs — evidence enough of that?

"I don't think that they're that good at it," said attorney Jon Moyle, representing a consortium of large industrial energy users. "It's not their core business… When you look at the results, they're not something that you would shine up and hold up and say, 'This is really good.'"

The Florida Public Service Commission decided Tuesday to hold a hearing in the fall to consider whether hedging should be discontinued altogether because of mounting losses or — as PSC staff recommends — continue it with better controls to limit the downside to consumers.

The commission has repeatedly voted to allow hedging in the past, but cracks are beginning to appear in their resolve. Right now, the state's utilities, including Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric, are under a hedging moratorium.

Commissioner Art Graham said hedging "probably" needs to continue to ensure consumers don't experiencing wide swings in their electric bills. But he expressed misgivings.

"I think we need to do more than what we have been doing because it seems like what we've been doing is picking a number and just staying there and not reacting to a market that's diving," Graham told the PSC. "I understand we need to take the guess work out if it. And I'm fine with that. But we've just got to do better than what we have been doing."

Hedging is a process in which utilities agree to buy natural gas, which will be provided at a later date, at a fixed price today. The process is meant to shield consumers from market volatility, especially when prices rise steeply.

Here's an example: If your local gas station agrees to let you fill up your tank a month from now by paying $2.15 cents per gallon right now, you save money if the price of gas rises to $2.30 per gallon when it comes time to fill your tank.

But the flip side of that scenario is what has burned utilities and their customers. If the market price of gasoline is $1.80 per gallon when you fill your tank (remember, you agreed to pay $2.15), then you have suffered a loss.

Commission staff has recommended that hedging be continued, perhaps working in tandem with a mechanism to cap losses when they grow too high.

"Fuel-price hedging has benefits and risks," the recommendation said. "However, when executed in an economically efficient manner, staff believes that fuel price hedging activities are in consumers' best interest."

The Office of Public Counsel, representing consumer interests before the PSC, wants to end hedging. OPC attorney Eric Saylor noted that federal figures show the price of natural gas is expected to remain stable in the next two decades or so.

Utilities favor hedging, saying it protects customers from wide swings in their bills.

The utilities have processed a "call options" plan that essentially would allow them to buy insurance against price increases, adding cost to their purchases of natural gas but limiting the downside to consumers.

Tampa Electric said in recent comments filed with the PSC that consumers still benefit even when hedging losses occur. That's because when utilities make a bad bet that gas prices will rise but they actually plummet, consumers still pay less for power.

"It is very doubtful we would be seeing criticisms of financial hedging if natural gas prices were rising… Had prices been rising over time, our hedging programs would have protected customers from having to pay" a higher amount for natural gas, Tampa Electric said.

Contact William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.

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