Climbing natural gas prices mean greater cost for U

U officials are bearing down the hatches financially after natural gas prices’ recent sky rocketing.

Pieter van der Have, assistant vice president for U plant operations, said that increases could translate into several million dollars of extra cost for the U.

“Natural gas costs are escalating, and we are seeing costs that are easily 30 to 40 percent higher than last year,” he said. Paul Brinkman, associate vice president for budget and planning, said that for every increase of $1 per deco-therm-a measurement of the volume of natural gas-it costs the U about $1 million.

“It can jump $3 or $4 in a very short amount of time,” he said, “as recent events have shown us.”

Chad Jones, a spokesman for Questar Corporation-one of the main providers of fuel for the U-said the increase in natural gas cost is driven by supply constraints, recent hurricanes, tight supply and high demand. To pay for this increase, Brinkman expects the U to lobby the Utah State Legislature this winter for two types of funding.

The first request will be for supplemental funding to get the U out of the financial hole for 2005-2006. The second request will be for gas and fuel costs anticipated for the 2006-2007 school year.

“If everything goes right-if we guess right and if the Legislature funds (our requests)-we would be fine,” he said. “But both of those are not slam dunks. We could guess wrong or the Legislature could choose not to fund our request.”

He is optimistic about getting both types of funding, especially because the legislature funded both types of request last year. But how much the U will receive is still up in the air.

“The funding situation, however, is not easy to predict,” he said. “Our cost is bigger than anyone else’s because our physical plant is bigger than those at other public colleges and universities in Utah.”

Brinkman also worries that by asking for funding for the increased cost of natural gas, the Legislature may not be as likely to support requests for other, more academic purposes.

“Clearly, if more money goes into fuel and power, we might get less elsewhere,” he said. “It is very disturbing for any academic (institution) to be spending additional money on fuel rather than on education.”

But he realizes that without fuel and power, the school would be incapable of running. If funding does not come through, van der Have said a recommendation might be made to the administration to encourage students and faculty to wear sweaters and layers.Brinkman also suggested that savings from conservation might negate rising energy costs to some extent.

“We have been approaching conservation in two ways over the years,” he said. “We have looked at the mechanical side-the efficiency of running the campus-and the behavioral side.”

Brinkman said that the campus has more than 30,000 computers and around 40,000 lighted rooms. He noted that many lights and computers are left on throughout the night. This is essentially money being wasted, he said, except in cases in which it is required, such as certain research projects. Van der Have estimated that through consultant groups, the university might be able to save $1 million per year, which could be used to compensate for the rising fuel costs. Students have been sharing in the burden of paying for rising energy costs for years, Brinkman said.

Students pay $18.50 per semester for fuel and power in student fees.

“We would not like to have to raise tuition to pay the increased costs again this year or the next,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it has to be dealt with. Let’s hope that the Legislature addresses the issue.”

Jones doesn’t foresee gas prices going down anytime soon, and both Brinkman and van der Have expect this to be a continual problem and one that can’t be easily fixed.

“This isn’t something that can be fixed overnight,” Brinkman said. “Prices fluctuate. We can only strive to be as efficient as we can while providing a great environment in which to learn.”

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