OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) — News 4 has received emails and calls nearly every week for the past few months from concerned Oklahomans about their utility bill. KFOR has widely reported how the winter storm of 2021 has added to your bill, some more than an extra $20 a month.
Two years ago, Oklahomans experienced the coldest temperatures the state has ever seen which sent utility companies and lawmakers into crisis mode. They were scrambling to keep lights on and the heat up. Prices for utilities, especially natural gas, sored to record numbers as companies purchased more gas to keep up with demand.
Brandy Wreath was the director of the Oklahoma Public Utilities Division at the time.
“We were really dealing with the lifesaving aspect, making sure gas was where it needed to be, making sure things were flowing,” said Wreath.
According to its website, it’s the Public Utilities Division’s job to ensure safe and reliable utility service at fair, just and responsible rates. The storm created a huge challenge.
“We have nothing to do with the gas market other than the horrible task of figuring out how that gets paid for at the end,” said Wreath.
At the same time, lawmakers realized another type of storm was brewing financially. They were presented with an idea to keep those utility costs low through the Securitization Act.
Securitization is when you turn debt, like a loan, into marketable securities that can be sold quickly. Bonds would be purchased as part of the agreement. Representative Logan Phillips was in office when the storm hit.
“We had meetings out the wazoo about this securitization. None of us had really heard of it,” said Phillips. “We formed a committee that was headed by a single representative that was working closely with the utility and energy companies and they collected information, presented to us, and then we voted on it.”
Phillips voted for securitization.
When asked if he knew there was a potential for a fee to be added to customers utility bills for more than 20 years, he said that wasn’t part of the initial plan.
“We talked about how this was going to be like a few dollars a month extra for the next 10 years for most people, you know, at $6 to $10. I think this massive exponential increase we’re seeing across the board was unthinkable.”
Oklahomans will shell out more than $2 billion for 28 years for the two-week storm. Phillips, who is no longer in office, said he has seen how the legislation has affected everyone across the state. He said he wished he would have voted differently.
“It came down to if this didn’t happen, that if we didn’t do these steps, that Oklahoma would suffer, our people would suffer. Now, looking back on it, our people are still suffering,” said Phillips.
He said lawmakers were given information from regulators and state agencies to show how high utility bills would climb without securitization.
Through an open records request, News 4 obtained emails that revealed correspondence with Wreath and other members of his office, as well as a representative from Oklahoma Natural Gas. It was information that would eventually be presented to the legislature.
In those emails, some marked “confidential”, it was suggested that ONG create a mock bill to “really paint the picture” for lawmakers. Another email suggested they use a winter level of usage to “really drive it home,” referring to high bill prices.
News 4 asked Wreath why he would use a mock bill to present to legislators a invented number instead of an accurate amount.
“We don’t have legal access to their billing system,” said Wreath. “Using a mock bill just means we’re going to run one based on all the calculations that go into a bill to provide an illustrative of what things would be.”
We also asked Phillips if he was aware he and other lawmakers were presented with a mock bill, not an accurate amount.
“That is horrendous,” said Phillips. “If you provide us theoretical or estimates or just made up numbers to better your case, it’s at worst unethical, immoral or should be criminal. We would make different decisions if we saw what the actual bills looked like versus what they decided to show us.”
On top of that prices for bonds used to pay for those winter costs went up while the case was tied up at the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which ended up costing utility customers even more.
“I filed the suit,” said former lawmaker Mike Reynolds.
He said he took the legislation to the state Supreme Court because it was rushed, and what he called unconstitutional.
“The legislation prevented an investigation into the price gouging,” said Reynolds.
He said without going to the Supreme Court no one could investigate what he said was really happening.
“I wish I could call it price gouging because I think it’s gross,” said Wreath. “But that’s how the market works.”
Wreath said the trading market was to blame for the sky-high price this has ended up costing Oklahomans, which has made a lot of people money off a natural disaster.
“Billions of dollars on the backs of people wanting to stay alive,” said Wreath.
Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony has been the lone commissioner to speak out about the cost of securitization and its effects on customers. He has said multiple times during hearings that he has felt the numbers do not add up, requested documents and details, and filed an independent review on the matter.
However, Wreath said he has given Commissioner Anthony all the information he can legally provide.
“Let’s just put the focus back where it needs to be,” said Wreath. “Over 200 dead in Texas. Oklahoma didn’t have that. Hundreds of billions in property damage (in Texas). Oklahoma didn’t have that and it’s like we’re being punished because everybody kept the lights on and everybody kept the gas burning.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond has the authority to investigate the process leading up to the Securitization Act, since the Attorney General’s office represents the customers. However, in recent interviews he has said he will likely not go that route.