Natural gas customers in the city should not be surprised if they see an increase in their bills through the coming winter months.

Socorro City Administrator Donald Monette says it is all connected to prices on the national level.

“We aren’t proposing an increase in the city’s rates, but costs are expected to go up nationally,” Monette said. “We budgeted for a certain amount of what it costs us. If prices go up, we’ll keep our budget the same — that’s what we run our department off of — but it’s still going to go up for everybody. Our consultants are telling us to expect a 33-36 percent increase.”

He said any gas increase changes come from the city’s supplier.

“Like any other commodity, it fluctuates. Supply and demand and production,” Monette said. “We buy it from Shell, and El Paso Natural Gas is our transporter. We’re estimated for a certain amount of gas. So, what Shell does is send us an estimated amount of gas they think we’re going to use, and then at the end of the year, we get an adjustment. But all the gas is estimated and we’re going to pay for what they send us.”

Finance Director Ruby Lopez budgets every year to stay within the natural gas cost last year. The city’s natural gas budget for FY22 was about $1 million.

“It’s like getting gasoline at the pump for our vehicles, it fluctuates from month to month, and we’re seeing an increase in natural gas,” she said. “Last year at this time, our gas was maybe 60 cents to 70 cents per unit. Now it’s over a dollar. And it’s been that for the last, I’d say, seven to eight months that the gas has been that high. But our markup stays the same.”

Lopez said it’s been several years since the last time costs have built up to this level.

“You know, we’ve had these prices before,” she said. “We haven’t had natural gas prices over a dollar since 2014, but it’s happening now. We’re already going on a good ninth or tenth month. Gas has skyrocketed.”

The natural gas is pushed into the Socorro system by pipeline from Belen, and pressure must be maintained throughout the line since the city does not have storage tanks that could be filled when prices are low.

“If you look off to the west side of I-25, every now and then you’ll see where the pipes come out of the ground,” Monette said. “Utility workers routinely go out and check the line for leaks.”

“A few years ago, we didn’t have enough pressure, and without the pressure, a lot of the furnaces turned off,” Lopez said. “We then had people without heat, but that hasn’t happened since we’ve been upgrading the system. We installed all new valves in the city.”

Those upgrades have increased the system’s capacity to achieve more fuel pressure in the pipes.

“We don’t have tanks like Shell does, and although we haven’t increased the size of our system, we are upgrading the system where we can hold more gas,” Lopez said. “Right now, we have a little over 3,000 customers, both residential and commercial.”

Monette said one option to avoid natural gas “sticker shock” would be to enroll in the city’s budget billing option, “so people don’t get hit with a low bill one month and a high bill the next month.

“We average the 12-month usage and the customer pays the same each month, and then once a year it gets corrected,” he said. “If they’ve overpaid, we give them a check and if they’ve underpaid, they’ll be charged a little bit more and start the process all over again.”