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The Equity and Efficiency of Two-Part Tariffs in U.S. Natural Gas Markets


  • Severin Borenstein
  • Lucas W. Davis


Residential natural gas customers in the United States face volumetric charges that average about 30 percent more than the marginal cost of gas. This inefficient departure from marginal cost pricing allows gas utilities to cover their fixed infrastructure and operating costs. Proposals for recovering these costs instead through fixed monthly fees are often opposed because of a widespread belief that current rate schedules have desirable distributional consequences. Using nationally representative household-level data, we show that the correlation between household income and natural gas consumption is indeed positive but surprisingly weak, so current rate schedules are only mildly progressive. In part, we argue that this is because poor households tend to have larger families and less energy-efficient homes. We calculate bill impacts under a variety of scenarios and show that even a modest energy assistance program would more than offset the distributional impact of tariff rebalancing for most low-income households.

Suggested Citation

  • Severin Borenstein & Lucas W. Davis, 2012. "The Equity and Efficiency of Two-Part Tariffs in U.S. Natural Gas Markets," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 55(1), pages 75-128.
  • Handle: RePEc:ucp:jlawec:doi:10.1086/661958

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Severin Borenstein & Meghan R. Busse & Ryan Kellogg, 2012. "Career Concerns, Inaction and Market Inefficiency: Evidence From Utility Regulation," Journal of Industrial Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 60(2), pages 220-248, June.
    2. Lucas W. Davis & Erich Muehlegger, 2010. "Do Americans consume too little natural gas? An empirical test of marginal cost pricing," RAND Journal of Economics, RAND Corporation, vol. 41(4), pages 791-810.
    3. Yew-Kwang Ng & Mendel Weisser, 1974. "Optimal Pricing with a Budget Constraint—The Case of the Two-part Tariff," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 41(3), pages 337-345.
    4. Alan J. Auerbach & Anthony J. Pellechio, 1978. "The Two-Part Tariff and Voluntary Market Participation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 92(4), pages 571-587.
    5. Baumol, William J & Bradford, David F, 1970. "Optimal Departures from Marginal Cost Pricing," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 60(3), pages 265-283, June.
    6. Martin S. Feldstein, 1972. "Equity and Efficiency in Public Sector Pricing: The Optimal Two-Part Tariff," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 86(2), pages 175-187.
    7. Christopher R. Knittel, 2003. "Market Structure and the Pricing of Electricity and Natural Gas," Journal of Industrial Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 51(2), pages 167-191, June.
    8. Snow, Arthur & Warren, Ronald Jr., 1996. "The marginal welfare cost of public funds: Theory and estimates," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 61(2), pages 289-305, August.
    9. Daniel Feenberg & Elisabeth Coutts, 1993. "An introduction to the TAXSIM model," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 12(1), pages 189-194.
    10. Severin Borenstein, 2012. "The Redistributional Impact of Nonlinear Electricity Pricing," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 4(3), pages 56-90, August.
    11. Jerry A. Hausman, 1979. "Individual Discount Rates and the Purchase and Utilization of Energy-Using Durables," Bell Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 10(1), pages 33-54, Spring.
    12. Charles L. Ballard & Don Fullerton, 1992. "Distortionary Taxes and the Provision of Public Goods," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 6(3), pages 117-131, Summer.
    13. Severin Borenstein & Meghan Busse & Ryan Kellogg, 2007. "Principal-agent Incentives, Excess Caution, and Market Inefficiency: Evidence From Utility Regulation," NBER Working Papers 13679, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Severin Borenstein & Lucas W. Davis, 2016. "The Distributional Effects of US Clean Energy Tax Credits," Tax Policy and the Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 30(1), pages 191-234.
    2. Severin Borenstein, 2014. "A Microeconomic Framework for Evaluating Energy Efficiency Rebound and Some Implications," The Energy Journal, International Association for Energy Economics, vol. 0(Number 1).
    3. Farrell, Niall & Lyons, Seán, 2014. "The distributional impact of the Irish public service obligation levy on electricity consumption," MPRA Paper 53488, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    4. Radulescu, Doina & Pavanini, Nicola & Feger, Fabian, 2016. "Welfare and Redistribution Effects of Alternative Tariffs in Energy Markets with Solar Power," Annual Conference 2016 (Augsburg): Demographic Change 145669, Verein für Socialpolitik / German Economic Association.
    5. Steven L. Puller & Jeremy West, 2013. "Efficient Retail Pricing in Electricity and Natural Gas Markets," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 103(3), pages 350-355, May.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D42 - Microeconomics - - Market Structure, Pricing, and Design - - - Monopoly
    • L50 - Industrial Organization - - Regulation and Industrial Policy - - - General
    • L95 - Industrial Organization - - Industry Studies: Transportation and Utilities - - - Gas Utilities; Pipelines; Water Utilities
    • Q48 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Energy - - - Government Policy
    • Q54 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Climate; Natural Disasters and their Management; Global Warming


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