Regulatory strategy We continue to actively pursue a regulatory strategy that reduces the lag between our investments in infrastructure and the recovery of those investments through various rate mechanisms. Our regulatory planning includes rate design proposals that should provide stabilized revenues through decoupling, or separating the recovery of fixed costs for providing service from the volumes of customer throughput. Our rate cases also include proposals for energy-efficiency programs that should help customers lower the amount of gas used and conserve energy.
Capital projects We continue to focus aggressively on capital discipline and cost control, while moving ahead with projects and initiatives that we expect to have current and future benefits and provide an appropriate return on invested capital. In 2009, our infrastructure improvement programs were approved in Georgia andNew Jersey. Additionally, the Magnolia pipeline project, completed in November 2009, allowing access to Elba Island LNG, should enable us to meet future demand for and diversify our supply of natural gas for Atlanta Gas Light customers. Our Hampton Roads Crossing pipeline project, with portions placed in service in December 2009 and the remainder in January 2010, provides additional infrastructure to accommodate growth to the Virginia Natural Gas distribution system. In addition, our Golden Triangle Storage project in Beaumont, Texas is on schedule and we expect the first cavern to be in operation in the second half of 2010.
Customer growth We continue to see challenging economic conditions in all of the areas we serve and, as a result, have experienced lower than expected customer growth in our distribution operations and retail energy operations segments throughout 2009, a trend we expect to continue through 2010.
For the year ended December 31, 2009, our distribution operations customer growth rate was (0.3)%, compared to 0.1% for 2008. The lower levels of customer growth are primarily a result of much slower growth in the residential housing markets throughout our service territories. This trend has been offset slightly by growth in the commercial customer segment in certain areas, primarily as a result of conversions to natural gas from other fuel sources as well as new product and service offerings.
We continue to use a variety of targeted marketing programs to attract new customers and to retain existing ones. These programs generally emphasize natural gas as the fuel of choice for customers and seek to expand the use of natural gas through a variety of promotional activities. We also use analytical predictive models to identify and target customers who might consider switching from natural gas to other sources of energy in order to retain them as a customer.
We have seen a 4% decline in average customer count in Georgia at SouthStar for the year ended December 31, 2009, as compared to 2008. This decline reflects some of the same economic conditions that have affected our utility businesses, as well as a more competitive retail market for natural gas in Georgia.
Natural gas price volatility Natural gas commodity prices have a significant impact on our customer rates and on our long-term competitive position against other energy sources. Over the last two years, daily Henry Hub spot market prices for natural gas in the United States has been extremely volatile and ranged between a high of $13.58 per Mcf in July 2008 to a low of $2.51 per Mcf in September 2009. Our natural gas acquisition strategy is designed to secure sufficient supplies of natural gas to meet the needs of our utility customers and to hedge gas prices to effectively manage costs, reduce price volatility and maintain a competitive advantage. Although spot natural gas prices were as low as $2.51 per Mcf during 2009, the current forward price of natural gas continues to remain at much higher levels from $5.12 to $6.47 per Mcf over the next year. Our hedging strategies and physical natural gas suppliesin storage enable us to reduce earnings risk exposure due to higher gas costs.
Capital market plan Our capital market plan over the next 12 to 18 months includes maintaining our total debt to total capitalization targets between 50% and 60%, the renewal of our $1 billion Credit Facility, the renewal of the letter of credit agreements which provide credit support for our variable-rate gas facility revenue bonds and refinancing of $300 million in 7.125% senior notes set to mature in January 2011.
We cannot predict whether renewing our Credit Facility or refinancing the senior notes would result in favorable terms or interest rates. Additionally, due to the significant changes in the credit markets, we expect that the costs of a renewed credit facility would increase and the duration to be less than the 5-year term under our existing Credit Facility. We have not yet determined whether we will seek to increase or decrease the size of the Credit Facility from its current $1 billion level.
Changes in commodity prices subject a significant portion of our operations to earnings variability. Our nonutility businesses principally use physical and financial arrangements to reduce the risks associated with both weather-related seasonal fluctuations in market conditions and changing commodity prices. These economic hedges may not qualify, or are not designated for, hedge accounting treatment. As a result, our reported earnings for the wholesale services and retail energy operations segments reflect changes in the fair values of certain derivatives. These valuesmay change significantly fromperiod to period and are reflected as gains or losses within our operating revenues or our OCI for those derivative instruments that qualify and are designated as accounting hedges. The net losses on weather hedges during 2009 at retail energy operations weremore than offset by corresponding increases in operatingmargin due to colder weather the hedges were designed to protect against.
Elizabethtown Gas utilizes certain financial derivatives in accordance with a directive from the New Jersey BPU to create a hedging program to hedge the impact of market fluctuations in natural gas prices. These derivative products are accounted for at fair value each reporting period. In accordance with regulatory requirements, realized gains and losses related to these financial derivatives are reflected in deferred natural gas costs and ultimately included in billings to customers. Unrealized gains and losses are reflected as a regulatory asset or liability, as appropriate, in our consolidated statements of financial position.
The operating revenues and EBIT of our distribution operations, retail energy operations and wholesale services segments are seasonal. During the heating season, natural gas usage and operating revenues are generally higher because more customers are connected to our distribution systems and natural gas usage is higher in periods of colder weather than in periods of warmer weather. Occasionally in the summer, Sequent’s operating revenues are impacted due to peak usage by power generators in response to summer energy demands. Seasonality also affects the comparison of certain statements of financial position items such as receivables, unbilled revenue, inventories and short-term debt across quarters. However, these items are comparable when reviewing our annual results.
Approximately 70%of these segments’ operating revenues and 79%of these segments’ EBIT for the year ended December 31, 2009 were generated during the first and fourth quarters of 2009, and are reflected in our consolidated statements of income for the quarters ended March 31, 2009 and December 31, 2009. Our base operating expenses, excluding cost of gas, interest expense and certain incentive compensation costs, are incurred relatively equally over any given year. Thus, our operating results can vary significantly from quarter to quarter as a result of seasonality.