This Toronto-area woman says she's not done fighting 'catch-up' gas bills for more than $7K
Ingrid Raudsepp says she couldn't believe her eyes when she received a series of new bills from Enbridge Gas Inc. in December that informed her she owed a whopping $7,430.06 for the previous 12 months.
Raudsepp, who lives in Mississauga west of Toronto, says she always pays her natural gas bills — about $122 a month — on time.
"I definitely thought that there had to be an error, that there was something wrong. There had to be miscalculations," Raudsepp told CBC Toronto.
"It was on Dec. 20, five days before Christmas. I just about fainted."
Raudsepp, who is unemployed, says she's been told by Enbridge that the company had been relying on estimates to calculate her bill, rather than up-to-date meter readings, and the new bill was to correct previous underestimates.
'There should have been a warning'
Enbridge is supposed to read meters at least once every two months but Ontario's energy regulator has identified meter reading performance as an issue.
Enbridge is regulated by the Ontario Energy Board (OEB). In 2021, the OEB launched a review in response to an increase in customer complaints related to issues such as meter reading and estimated billing — with large "catch-up" bills cited as one of the problems. The OEB found Enbridge was not complying with certain customer service requirements.
In September 2022, the OEB said it had accepted an assurance of voluntary compliance from Enbridge, in which the company made a plan and committed to addressing the issues. Enbridge was also required to pay a $250,000 penalty.
Raudsepp says she never thought much about her bill, and didn't realize Enbridge had been relying on estimates.
"I didn't really understand, to be honest, the process. I just paid my bills monthly the way I was supposed to," she said.
They should have maybe tried harder, put up some red flags. — Ingrid Raudsepp
After receiving the eye-popping bill in December, Raudsepp spoke with a supervisor at Enbridge, who offered her a $300 credit. Raudsepp says that offer was "unacceptable."
In January, she contacted the OEB, and the board sent her complaint to an ombudsman at Enbridge. In emails to Raudsepp this month, a member of the ombudsman's office apologized for relying on estimates and offered a repayment plan over two years, but did not offer to reduce the total amount owed beyond the $300 credit.
The staff member said the reason the company relied on estimates was that it couldn't gain access to the meter, due to a locked gate at Raudsepp's house.
Raudsepp says her family added the gate in 2018 when they put a pool in their backyard. She says she doesn't recall Enbridge ever notifying her about the problem.
"There should have been a warning," she said.
Bill 'unfair,' say advocates
Enbridge is allowed to rely on estimates in certain instances but it's unreasonable that the company would wait so long to correct the bills, says John Lawford, the executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which advocates for consumers who pay for regulated services, including energy.
"Getting a bill shock at the end, I believe, is unfair, especially if you've led people along to believe that the estimate is accurate," Lawford said.
Other than complaining to the OEB and trying to reason with Enbridge, Lawford says customers like Raudsepp could try going to small claims court.
The issue of large "catch-up" bills is also on the radar of an advocacy group called the Low Income Energy Network (LIEN), says Abhilash Kantamneni, a member of LIEN's steering committee.
Kantamneni says people have a tendency to trust their bills, but should pay close attention to make sure the figures are accurate and based on actual meter readings. He also encourages people to look out for vulnerable family and community members who might not notice discrepancies.
"But that alone is not going to fix this because clearly this is a systematic problem," he said.
Kantamneni, who's also a research associate with a group called Efficiency Canada, which advocates for an energy efficient economy, says it's unclear just how widespread the issue truly is. But he says he's particularly concerned about how unexpected large bills can affect low income people, and says the onus for ensuring bills are accurate each month should be on the company.
Staffing challenges partly to blame, Enbridge says
Enbridge told CBC News no one was available for an interview. But in an email, media relations manager Andrea Stass says the company "strives to read a customer's meter every other month" but that has been a challenge for the last several years for various reasons, including staffing challenges.
Stass says the Enbridge is taking steps to reduce how often it relies on meter estimates. She also says in cases where the company can't get access to a meter, it will notify the customer by email and, if possible, by leaving a notice at their door — something Raudsepp says she doesn't recall Enbridge ever doing in her family's case.
She says she's under extreme stress as she tries to figure out what to do about her bill but she's not done fighting.
"I'm home, my partner is retired. There really is no excuse that they were unable to read the meter," Raudsepp said.
"They should have maybe tried harder, put up some red flags."