Curbing natural gas theft is a full-time job for Debbie Hauliska and José Estela – both of whom are investigators for the Piedmont Natural Gas anti-theft team.
Their targets are people who steal or tamper with natural gas meters, and their efforts have cut thefts by 75 percent in five years, with the number of cases dropping from 2,214 in 2012, to just 557 at the end of 2017.
Using cutting-edge technology and relationships they’ve formed with local law enforcement, Hauliska and Estela canvass areas of Charlotte, N.C. looking for signs of natural gas theft. Signs include covered or altered natural gas meters, missing meters, and meters with hoses or other tubing used to bypass or otherwise alter the flow of natural gas.
Tampering with natural gas meters can be extremely dangerous, so theft detection serves to remove safety hazards. This is also an important task since the cost of stolen natural gas is shared among all customers. But Hauliska and Estela’s work is having a quieter, more far-reaching positive effect – it’s identifying people who need help. When the team locates a site where natural gas is being stolen or used illegally, they are obligated to remove the meter and cut off the flow of natural gas. But this team recognizes that some people steal natural gas because they simply can’t afford to pay for it.
“I carry a card with the number for Crisis Assistance on it,” Estela said. “I don’t know what’s on the other side of that door. I’ll work with you. It’s rough out there.”
Crisis Assistance Ministry is an agency in Mecklenburg County, N.C., providing the working poor with emergency rent and utility assistance, clothing, household goods and furniture. Piedmont Natural Gas supports Crisis Assistance Ministry through its Share the Warmth program – an optional program that rounds up a Piedmont customer’s bill to the nearest dollar and then donates all the proceeds to help people in need pay their utility bills, regardless of which utility they use.
Hauliska estimates that since 2012, she and Estela have referred at least 250 families to Crisis Assistance for help.