ATLANTA — Heating bills could rise under a bill approved in the House on Wednesday that would allow Atlanta Gas Light Co. to build a $300 million natural gas pipeline and bill customers pay for it.

Democrats questioned whether a new pipeline was necessary and said its creation would harm consumers, who would see an additional surcharge on their heating bills.

Republican supporters said it would drive down prices in the long run by increasing Georgia’s natural gas capacity.

“This is a matter of simple economics. It’s supply and demand,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Lewis, R-White.

Lewis said while there is no shortage of natural gas supply in Georgia he is looking to the future.

The bill passed by a 110-59 vote. It would expand access to liquefied natural gas at the Elba Island terminal, near Savannah. The Public Service Commission must still vote on the pipeline, but the bill streamlines the process.

Democrats like Rep. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, accused supporters of the bill of weakening the PSC’s ability to protect consumers.

The exact amount of the pipeline surcharge consumers will see is unclear. Atlanta Gas Light can recover the pipeline costs from consumers only after the project is complete. Estimates place the surcharge in the neighborhood of $2 per bill.

“You know and I know that this will not reduce gas prices,” Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, said. “If you own plenty of (Atlanta Gas Light) stock this is a good bill for you.”

An amendment by Lucas that would re-regulate Georgia’s natural gas industry was declared non-germane.

Several Democrats attempted to shift attention to the larger issue of regulation during debate on Wednesday, claiming that the state’s deregulation of the natural gas industry has sent heating costs soaring.

Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, said while there have been some problems with der-regulation its effect has been positive overall.

Burkhalter said Hurricane Katrina left him concerned about the vulnerability of Georgia’s energy supply. He maintained that eventually the consumer would see a benefit, which could reach $50 to $75 per gas bill.

“More gas means cheaper gas. It’s pretty simple,” he said.

High heating costs have become a hot political topic this session. The first bill signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue this year slashed the state sales tax in half for a modest savings of about $6 on a $300 bill. Gas prices in Georgia have begun to creep back down. But critics say they remain among the highest in the nation.

The gas pipeline bill now moves to the state Senate.

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On the Net:

Read House Bill 1325: http://www.legis.state.ga.us

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