Kansans may see big hike in heating bills in coming weeks. Here's what you need to know.

Chad Frey
The Kansan
Officials are urging natural gas consumption as the price of gas has risen from $3 a unit to more than $600 as the result of frozen wells.

An especially cranky Old Man Winter has unleashed his temper on the middle of the nation in the form of a polar vortex that plunged temps to lows not seen in decades for the region. 

And just as temps are expected to rise, it appears he has one more blow to deliver — massive natural gas bills could be coming as the result of frozen wellheads and never-before-seen demand for natural gas. 

"It's not just us," said Burrton Mayor Rodney Redinger after sitting through multiple briefings of the Kansas Municipal Gas Agency. "That's the problem, if this was just Kansas and Nebraska, we would not see the energy issue we have. It is just so widespread. ... It's not just us that needs the warmer weather, it is the southern part of the United States, as well."

The result of the increased demand, and a struggle to get gas out of wells and into the hands of suppliers, is leading to much higher prices.

Natural gas price increase may be 'scary'

Hesston city administrator Gary Emry, a member of the board of the KMGA, said the association that represents 49 cities in the state has seen price increases that are "scary."

"Last Tuesday we were buying gas at $3 per MMBTU in our consortium. By the end of the week it went up to $329 per MMBTU," Emry said. "... Tuesday (Feb. 16) two things happened. We were only able to buy 2/3 of what we asked for ... and the daily index went from $329 to $622. It exacerbated the issue for us."

Agco, an agricultural manufacturer in Hesston, issued a letter to employees this week adjusting shifts and outlining cost-saving measures in anticipation of a gas bill that would be larger than normal — estimating more than $1 million in its letter. 

Bills will be higher for all consumers as the cost of gas gets passed through. Kansas Gas Service will not give estimates of how much higher those bills might be for the average customer, but does acknowledge that the bill will be high. 

"We can't quantify at the present what the impact will be," said spokesperson Daw Tripp. "We will do everything we can to work with our customers. This winter event has been unprecedented."

Tripp said there were "financial resources" linked from the company website, and payment plans would be an option.

Meanwhile, people are bracing for bigger bills. 

"In Hesston there will be residents with bills in the thousands," Emry said. "I don't mean $1,200. I mean multiple thousands of dollars."

Kansas town tries to soften blow

In Burrton, Redinger is going through the city budget in search of ways to soften the blow when it comes. 

"I am reviewing our budget now to see how ... the city can absorb that for our bill to KMGA and when people get their gas bills how we can work with them to make the payments — either to pay in full if they have the resources to do that or to make payments over time," Redinger said. "I do not know what that is going to look like yet." 

Kansas Gas Service sent notices Tuesday directed at large customers asking them to reduce their gas usage to "plant protection mode" — the lowest possible usage that will keep pipes from freezing and avoid damage to equipment — to prevent outages.

“We are planning for potential outages and putting measures in place to keep gas service to our customers and critical facilities,” said Sean Postlethwait, vice president of operations for Kansas Gas Service. “Our large commercial, industrial and transport customers play an important and pivotal role in helping the community avert a disruption in service.”

This curtailment does not apply to schools, hospitals, health care facilities, hotels or lodging facilities, grocery stores, universities, colleges, churches, public safety buildings, multi-family dwellings and apartments.

Frozen pipes, wellheads to blame

This is the result of "freeze-offs," the freezing of pipes and wellheads used to pump natural gas. 

"There is no shortage, this is being created by other factors," Emry said. "... It will be a tough period of time. ... The unknown is what damage has occurred at the wellhead freezing. ... Wellheads could be down for days for maintenance and repair for a few days."

In the meantime, cities and utilities talk of conservation — and cities have begun working on other options, as well. Gov. Laura Kelly signed an emergency declaration, and cities are asking President Joe Biden to follow suit at the federal level, as well. 

That could open up some federal funding — though that is unclear. 

"We have the potential for disaster relief through FEMA. There has never been an emergency declaration that has covered utility payments," Emry said. "We have never been in a dire state of emergency in that regard, either."

KMGA member cities

Alma, Abbyville, Altamont, Anthony, Argonia. Augusta, Baldwin City, Beloit, Burlingame, Burrton, Cassoday, Chanute, Cheney, Coffeyville, Concordia, Denison, Ellinwood, Eskridge, Garden City, Gardner, Garnett, Halstead, Harveyville, Hesston, Hoisington, Howard, Humboldt, Jamestown, Kechi, LaCygne, Little River, Louisburg, Lyons, McLouth, Moundridge, Osage City, Ottawa, Partridge, Russell, Rozel, Spearville, Sterling, Sylvia, Uniontown, Walton, Wamego, Washington, Wellington, Winfield