By GRACE BARBIC
Capitol News Illinoisgbarbic@capitolnewsillinois.com
SPRINGFIELD – Gov. JB Pritzker announced a low-interest loan program Tuesday to help alleviate the unprecedented financial burden from soaring utility costs for certain Illinois municipalities and their residents.
The extreme weather that devastated Texas’ electrical grid last week has resulted in skyrocketing natural gas prices in Illinois directly linked to frozen natural gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma.
“To put the severity of this crisis in perspective, the egregious level of natural gas prices would be similar to a gallon of gasoline rising from the current $2.89 per gallon to $289 per gallon,” Heather Viele, General Manager of the Interstate Municipal Gas Agency said.
The energy pricing surges have specifically impacted central and southern Illinois communities, including Pawnee and Roodhouse, which rely on the Panhandle Pipeline for natural gas for everyday energy use.
This particular pipeline, which originates in Texas and Oklahoma, runs through Kansas and Missouri across central Illinois to parts of Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.
The average cost of natural gas in the winter months is between $2-$3 per dekatherm, but impacted municipalities saw utility bills up to $225 per dekatherm from Feb. 13 to Feb. 16 when Texas was facing extreme weather conditions, according to the governor’s office.
At Pritzker’s request, the Illinois Finance Authority has developed a low-interest $15 million loan program for communities impacted by record-high utility costs. The money would go directly to the municipalities, but the specifics of interest rates and terms are set to be discussed Thursday in a special meeting with the IFA board. Viele said she expects the interest rate to be low with a timeframe of a couple years for repayment.
Pritzker’s Deputy Press Secretary Jose Sanchez Molina said an estimated 40 to 50 municipalities who have been affected by the pipeline will be included in the loan program.
The record-high utility bills come at a time when many are already strapped for money as a result of the ongoing pandemic.
Pawnee Mayor Jeff Clark said that neither the village of Pawnee nor the individual residents, a population of about 2,700 people, can afford to absorb the gas price increases.
“With the assistance from the state, Pawnee will be able to pay these gas bills to stay current with our suppliers and avoid penalties and late fees that could be assessed,” Clark said. “We will be able to spread the pain to our residents over a longer period of time. And that is really huge.”
Pritzker said that’s the purpose of the loan program – to avoid an overwhelming financial burden in the hopes that further federal assistance will be on the way.
Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, said she thinks there also needs to be accountability for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the independent grid for much of Texas.
“I am not so naive to believe that this loan is going to solve everybody’s problems because the problem still exists,” Scherer said. “The way I feel that we’re going to solve the problem is to put a lot of pressure on the government, so that they put pressure on ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) to correct this mistake.”
Viele agreed that “while this desperately needed aid is providing a lifeline to our small towns, there is still a lot more financial need that needs to be covered.”
She said she is also looking to federal officials, including Illinois’ U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, for additional emergency disaster relief.
Pritzker agreed, noting that the loan program only provides temporary relief and prolongs the bill payment.
“I join our senators Durbin and Duckworth and governors across the country in calling on the federal government to provide direct relief to these communities and the individuals there who were most directly impacted,” he said.
Pritzker said accountability could come from a recently launched federal investigation of the gas price spikes. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, has called for such an investigation at the federal level.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.