People in Sudbury who pay a natural gas bill could see a rate hike next month, now that both Enbridge and Union Gas have applied to the provincial energy board to increase rates, starting April 1.

Union Gas has more than 130,000 customers in northeastern Ontario. Those people could face a $200-a-year rate hike, if the company's proposal is approved by the provincial authorities.

Union Gas spokesperson Andrea Stass said the utility has a program in place to help low-income earners.

"We do offer a program for low-income customers who are having trouble with their utility bills. [It’s] a grant of up to $500 per year to put towards their gas bills."

That program, which is also offered by other natural gas suppliers, is only available for people who fall behind on bill payments.

'$200 is huge'

The Ontario government is also offering the Northern Ontario Energy Tax Credit for people earning less than $37,000 a year.

Families could get a $210 rebate under that plan.

But Laurentian professor Karen McCauley, who studies social policy, warned it won't be effective for people with very low incomes.

"If you don't have the money, you can't pay it and get a refund. If you don't generate enough income to pay the cost up front and be refunded, it doesn't really solve your problem,” she said.

"[An extra] $200 is huge. If a single person on Ontario Works is making less than $1,000 a month, [and] you raise it even $20 bucks a month, where will they get that $20 from?"

The Ontario Energy Board is expected to respond to the rate proposal soon.