Facing a financial crunch last year, Enbridge Gas New Brunswick failed to bill dozens — or perhaps hundreds — of its commercial and industrial clients for increases in their consumption, a company executive acknowledged at a rate hearing Wednesday.
Lori Stickles, manager of corporate services for Enbridge, said layoffs made at its Fredericton head office in an attempt to save money, instead resulted in more than 300 companies escaping a review of their consumption records that would have triggered hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra billings.
"Lack of people, lack of bodies, lack of time," said Stickles of Enbridge's failure to figure out which of its customers owed money. "It's a business risk we assumed when we cut bodies."
The admission came as Enbridge was pleading financial hardship during rate hearings in front of New Brunswick's Energy and Utilities Board.
Enbridge says it is not making enough money in the province and has proposed a package of distribution rate hikes on most of its customers and significant changes to the way homeowners are billed to generate more income.
But opponents argue Enbridge is responsible for most of its financial problems and shouldn't be allowed to charge customers more to fix them.
Christopher Stewart, a lawyer representing two of Enbridge's biggest customers, J.D. Irving Ltd.'s Atlantic Wallboard and the St. Stephen manufacturer Flakeboard, questioned Enbridge executives at length about its billing failures last year.
He forced Stickles to acknowledge that one group of eight companies would have had to pay an extra $260,000 had Enbridge reviewed their consumption records and billed them properly.
Stewart has been arguing that management failures at Enbridge — like unbilled accounts — are the cause of its problems. Last month he told the EUB it should not rush to the company's rescue with rate increases.
"Enbridge has run its business in such a fashion that there is a fundamental debate about whether it can cover its costs," said Stewart. "The responsibility should be borne by the investors of Enbridge Gas New Brunswick."
But Enbridge general manager Gilles Volpé told the hearing that the company could not survive without charging more. The company says the 60 per cent discounts it was forced to give homeowners on gas distribution rates in February to compensate for high gas prices are costing it nearly $1 million a month and should be cancelled at the end of March.
Enbridge also wants rules that force it to lower homeowner rates during natural gas price spikes to be cancelled and distribution rates to most commercial and industrial customers raised.
Volpe said without more income, Enbridge cannot run a viable business in New Brunswick.
"The public gas utility's future will be compromised," he said.