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On April 16, the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) issued a Decision and Order concerning an application from Enbridge (EB 2018-0319) to continue the Open Bill Access (OBA) program for the years 2019 and 2020 under the existing financial terms.  The utility has received permission to continue operating the program as proposed, but with some modifications and under some revised terms.  The program in it new form will be in place until either December 31, 2023, or until Enbridge makes an application to expand the program into the former Union Gas service area (expected to happen in a year). 

Background

Enbridge Gas Inc. filed an application with the OEB on December 4, 2018, for approval to continue the existing financial terms associated with offering Open Bill Access (OBA) services for 2019 and 2020. The OBA program allows third parties to charge their customers directly by adding their charges to the Enbridge Gas bill.  A number of HRAI members in the Enbridge Gas distribution area use the service, either directly or through a third-party financing company.

Back in 2009, the OEB approved an agreement between Enbridge and third-party billers that covered all aspects of the OBA program.  The 2009 settlement outlined the rates that would be charged to third party billers and included a $5.389 million sharing of net revenues with ratepayers, which was built into Enbridge Gas’s revenue requirement.

In 2013 and 2014, the OEB approved subsequent settlement proposals that continued the OBA program.  The 2014 settlement proposal continued to set out the pricing and costing of the OBA program for Enbridge Gas’s 2014 to 2018 rate-setting term and the sharing of annual net revenues. In this most recent application, Enbridge Gas requested a two-year extension of the existing financial terms and the sharing of net revenues as set out in the 2014 settlement proposal.

Rather than simply accepting a routine extension of the current program, a number of intervenors, including the Ontario HVAC Coalition, took the opportunity to raise concerns about the fairness and effectiveness of certain terms and conditions in the program. Questions were raised about: i) how the billing service was being used (and potentially abused) by third parties; ii) what measures Enbridge was using to guard against those alleged abuses; iii) whether customers had proper protections from potential abuse under the terms of the program; and iv) whether customers typically understood what protections they might have.  There were also questions about whether the terms of the program were sufficiently appealing to businesses that might want to use the service (i.e. was the relatively low uptake from industry over more than a decade of existence due to prohibitive terms, a lack of marketing, or just a general lack of interest on the part of potential billers?)

Intervenors held a number of meetings in the summer and fall of 2019 with the goal of reaching a settlement agreement on these various questions (and others).  On October 23, 2019, Enbridge Gas and intervenors filed a supplemental partial settlement proposal. The settlement proposal agreed on the following items:

  • The OBA program would continue to operate under the existing financial terms until the earlier of either December 31, 2023, or an OEB decision on an Enbridge Gas application to expand the OBA program into the Union Gas service area;
  • The bill insert program will be discontinued;
  • Enbridge Gas would provide customers with a bill insert that describes the OBA program, with emphasis on customer rights and obligations
  • Enbridge Gas would host an annual stakeholder meeting and provide ongoing anonymized data about the operation of the OBA program;
  • Enbridge Gas would coordinate dialogue with small billers to make the OBA program more attractive to small billers;
  • Enbridge Gas would file, as part of its next OBA application, either a request to expand the OBA program to the Union Gas service area or an explanation as to why the request is not being made; and
  • Enbridge Gas would reopen the review of the OBA agreement at that time with billers.

The parties to the supplemental partial settlement proposal (including HVAC Coalition) were, however, unable to settle on the following items, which were therefore put forward to the OEB for determination:

  1. What control should OBA customers have over the addition, removal, and reinstatement of third-party charges on their Enbridge Gas bill through the OBA program?
  2. What restrictions, if any, should be placed on billing OBA customers for penalties, exit or termination fees, or similar charges through the Enbridge Gas bill?

The OEB accepted the supplement partial settlement proposal while the two unsettled issues were addressed by way of a hearing held on January 30 and 31, 2020.  HVAC Coalition presented one witness, Chair Roger Grochmal, AtlasCare Heating and Cooling, who provided testimony concerning the value of the OBA service. 

Interested readers are invited to review the submissions of the various parties to the hearing, as well as the proceeding transcripts and final decision at the OEB website (all documents are downloadable).

Decision

After hearing evidence and arguments from all parties on the two unsettled questions the OEB panel, in the end, accepted Enbridge Gas’s proposed revisions to the OBA process without further modification.  The OEB will not be imposing new restrictions on billing penalties, exit, or termination fees or similar charges.

What’s Next?

The HVAC Coalition (and others) will monitor the rollout of the modified program via the established review procedures, to ensure it meets the needs of HVAC contractors in the province.  Meanwhile, HRAI will assist Enbridge in its efforts to reach out to contractors across its service territory to make them aware of the availability and benefits of the program.