Atmos Energy Corporation still has not found rural areas in Oktibbeha County to be reasonable candidates for natural gas expansion but is working to expand natural gas service to 250 residences in Starkville, Atmos public affairs employees say.
The company also has added a gas line to the industrial park that is under construction in the northern part of the city.
“Utility infrastructure is just critical to economic growth, not only for the region but for the state as a whole, so we’re really excited about things that are going on in the Golden Triangle,” Atmos Vice President of Public Affairs Bobby Morgan said.
Natural gas expansion is in progress at new and growing subdivisions such as Adelaide, Acadiana Park, Country Club Estates and College View Apartments, Morgan said. Additionally, Atmos completed two projects to alleviate natural gas pressure issues in Starkville neighborhoods, one on Old West Point Road a few years ago and one on Locksley Way this year, according to Atmos Mississippi Division public affairs director Robert Lesley.
Both Morgan and Lesley said Atmos is actively looking for residential areas in the rest of the county that would be worth installing natural gas lines.
In March, the Mississippi Public Service Commission announced it had established a $5 million fund that could be used to expand natural gas lines in rural areas across the state. The fund would allow Atmos to immediately develop the lines and then reimburse the commission over time, forgoing $5 million in immediate profits.
The rural expansion program, as Atmos calls it, lowers the threshold of the density of houses considered economically feasible for adding a natural gas line. Atmos looks for “the right ratio” of homes in a given square mileage, and some streets have several houses but not enough, Lesley said.
“We get contacted by people who say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this area, would you come take a look at it?'” he said. “So far, we haven’t found the right combination.”
While Atmos has not found opportunities for rural growth in Oktibbeha County, it’s working on projects that could add 300 customers in rural areas of Lowndes County, Morgan said.
The rural expansion program is one of two in which the Public Service Commission works closely with Atmos, and the other provides natural gas service to industrial and commercial areas such as the North Star Industrial Park, Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said.
The park has been the only major industrial or commercial request in Oktibbeha County in the past few years, Presley said.
City and county leaders approved the industrial park in 2016, but a lawsuit challenging the rezoning of the land near the intersection of highways 82 and 389 delayed development for almost three years. The suit ended in September with the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decided not to the review the case that had been decided in the city’s favor in lower courts.
The industrial park is a rare situation where Atmos can take an “if you build it, they will come” approach, Lesley said. Installing natural gas lines is too expensive to do without existing developments, but previous industrial parks in Starkville have had no trouble finding tenants, so Atmos and the Public Service Commission decided installing gas service at North Star was worth it, he said.
“We’ve done all the land acquisition, which is usually the hardest and most time-consuming part of a project,” he said. “We’ve got a path to that industrial park, so if a prospect does land, we can run that pipe as quickly as possible.”