Critical Accounting Estimates

The preparation of our financial statements requires us to make estimates and judgments that affect the reported amounts of assets, liabilities, revenues and expenses and the related disclosures of contingent assets and liabilities.We base our estimates on historical experience and various other assumptions that we believe to be reasonable under the circumstances, and we evaluate our estimates on an ongoing basis. Our actual results may differ from our estimates. Each of the following critical accounting estimates involves complex situations requiring a high degree of judgment either in the application and interpretation of existing literature or in the development of estimates that impact our financial statements.

Pipeline Replacement Program Liabilities Atlanta Gas Light was ordered by the Georgia Commission (through a joint stipulation and a subsequent settlement agreement between Atlanta Gas Light and the Georgia Commission staff) to undertake a pipeline replacement program that would replace all bare steel and cast iron pipe in its system. Approximately 31 miles of cast iron and 303 miles of bare steel pipe still require replacement. If Atlanta Gas Light does not perform in accordance with the initial and amended pipeline replacement program stipulation, it can be assessed certain nonperformance penalties. However to date, Atlanta Gas Light is in full compliance.

The stipulation also provides for recovery of all prudent costs incurred under the program, which Atlanta Gas Light has recorded as a regulatory asset. The regulatory asset has two components:

  • the costs incurred to date that have not yet been recovered through rate riders
  • the future expected costs to be recovered through rate riders

The determination of future expected costs associated with our pipeline replacement program involves judgment. Factors that must be considered in estimating the future expected costs are projected capital expenditure spending, including labor and material costs, and the remaining infrastructure footage to be replaced for the remaining years of the program. We recorded a long-term liability of $155 million as of December 31, 2009 and $140 million as of December 31, 2008, which represented engineering estimates for remaining capital expenditure costs in the pipeline replacement program. As of December 31, 2009, we had recorded a current liability of $55 million, representing expected pipeline replacement program expenditures for the next 12 months. We report these estimates on an undiscounted basis. If Atlanta Gas Light’s pipeline replacement program expenditures, subject to future recovery, were $10 million higher or lower its incremental expected annual revenues would have changed by approximately $1 million.

    Environmental Remediation Liabilities We historically reported estimates of future remediation costs based on probabilistic models of potential costs. We report these estimates on an undiscounted basis. As we continue to conduct the actual remediation and enter into cleanup contracts, we are increasingly able to provide conventional engineering estimates of the likely costs of many elements of the remediation program. These estimates contain various engineering uncertainties, and we continuously attempt to refine and update these engineering estimates. The following table provides more information on our former operating sites:

    In millions
    Cost estimate range
    Amount recorded
    Expected costs over next twelve
    Georgia and Florida
    $ 64 – $113
    $ 64
    New Jersey
    69 – 134
    North Carolina
    11 – 16
    $144 – $263

    We have confirmed 13 former operating sites in Georgia and Florida where Atlanta Gas Light owned or operated all or part of these sites. One additional former MGP site has been recently identified adjacent to an existing MGP remediation site. Precise engineering soil and groundwater clean up estimates are not available and considerable variability exists with this potential new site. As of December 31, 2009, the soil and sediment remediation program was substantially complete for all Georgia sites, except for a few remaining areas of recently discovered impact, although groundwater cleanup continues. Investigation is concluded for one phase of the Orlando, Florida site; however, the Environmental Protection Agency has not approved the clean up plans. For elements of the Georgia and Florida sites where we still cannot provide engineering cost estimates, considerable variability remains in future cost estimates.

    Additionally, we have identified six former operating sites in New Jersey where Elizabethtown Gas owned or operated all or part of these sites. Material cleanups of these sites have not been completed nor are precise estimates available for future cleanup costs and therefore considerable variability remains in future cost estimates. We have also identified a site in North Carolina, which is subject to a remediation order by the North Carolina Department of Energy and Natural Resources. There are no cost recovery mechanisms for the environmental remediation of this site.

    Atlanta Gas Light’s environmental remediation liability is included in its corresponding regulatory asset. Atlanta Gas Light’s estimate does not include other potential expenses, such as unasserted property damage, personal injury or natural resource damage claims, unbudgeted legal expenses, or other costs for which it may be held liable but with respect to which the amount cannot be reasonably forecast. Atlanta Gas Light’s recovery of environmental remediation costs is subject to review by the Georgia Commission, which may seek to disallow the recovery of some expenses.

    In New Jersey, Elizabethtown Gas is currently conducting remediation activities with oversight from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The New Jersey BPU has authorized Elizabethtown Gas to recover prudently incurred remediation costs for the New Jersey properties through its remediation adjustment clause. Elizabethtown Gas has been successful in recovering a portion of remediation costs incurred in New Jersey from its insurance carriers and continues to pursue additional recovery. As of December 31, 2009, the variation between the amounts of the environmental remediation cost liability recorded in the consolidated statements of financial position and the associated regulatory asset is due to expenditures for environmental investigation and remediation exceeding recoveries from ratepayers and insurance carriers.

    We also own remediation sites located outside of New Jersey. One site, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, is subject to an order by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. There is one other site in North Carolina where investigation and remediation is possible, although no regulatory order exists and we do not believe costs associated with this site can be reasonably estimated.

    With respect to these costs, we currently pursue or intend to pursue recovery from ratepayers (except for the Elizabeth City, North Carolina site), former owners and operators and insurance carriers. While we have been successful in recovering a portion of these remediation costs from our insurance carriers, we are not able to express a belief as to the success of additional recovery efforts. We are working with the regulatory agencies to manage our remediation costs so as to mitigate the impact of such costs on both ratepayers and shareholders.

    Derivatives and Hedging Activities The authoritative guidance related to derivatives and hedging established accounting and reporting standards which require that every derivative financial instrument (including certain derivative instruments embedded in other contracts) be recorded in the statements of financial position as either an asset or liability measured at its fair value. However, if the derivative transaction qualifies for and is designated as a normal purchase and sale, it is exempted from the fair value accounting treatment of this guidance, and is accounted for using traditional accrual accounting.

    The guidance requires that changes in the derivative’s fair value be recognized currently in earnings unless specific hedge accounting criteria are met. If the derivatives meet those criteria, the guidance allows a derivative’s gains and losses to offset related results on the hedged item in the income statement in the case of a fair value hedge, or to record the gains and losses in OCI until the hedged transaction occurs in the case of a cash flow hedge. Additionally, the guidance requires that a company formally designate a derivative as a hedge as well as document and assess the effectiveness of derivatives associated with transactions that receive hedge accounting treatment. The guidance applies to gas commodity contracts executed by Sequent and SouthStar. The guidance also applies to gas commodity contracts executed by Elizabethtown Gas under a New Jersey BPU authorized hedging program that requires gains and losses on these derivatives are reflected in purchased gas costs and ultimately billed to customers. Our derivative and hedging activities are described in further detail in Note 2 and Item 1 “Business.”

    Commodity-related Derivative Instruments We are exposed to risks associated with changes in the market price of natural gas. Through Sequent and SouthStar, we use derivative financial instruments to reduce our exposure impact to our results of operations due to the risk of changes in the price of natural gas.

    Sequent recognizes the change in value of a derivative financial instrument as an unrealized gain or loss in revenues in the period when the market value of the instrument changes. Sequent recognizes cash inflows and outflows associated with the settlement of its risk management activities in operating cash flows, and reports these settlements as receivables and payables in the statements of financial position separately from the risk management activities reported as energy marketing receivables and trade payables.

    We attempt to mitigate substantially all of our commodity price risk associated with Sequent’s natural gas storage portfolio and lock in the economic margin at the time we enter into purchase transactions for our stored natural gas.We purchase natural gas for storage when the current market price we pay plus storage costs is less than the market price we could receive in the future. We lock in the economic margin by selling NYMEX futures contracts or other OTC derivatives in the forward months corresponding with our withdrawal periods. We use contracts to sell natural gas at that future price to lock in the operating revenues we will ultimately realize when the stored natural gas is actually sold. These contracts meet the definition of a derivative under the authoritative guidance related to derivatives and hedging.

    The purchase, storage and sale of natural gas are accounted for differently from the derivatives we use to mitigate the commodity price risk associated with our storage portfolio. That difference in accounting can result in volatility in our reported operating margin, even though the economic margin is essentially unchanged from the date we entered into the transactions. We do not currently use hedge accounting under the authoritative guidance to account for this activity.

    Natural gas that we purchase and inject into storage is accounted for at the lower of weighted average cost or market value. Under current accounting guidance, we recognize a loss in any period when the market price for natural gas is lower than the carrying amount of our purchased natural gas inventory. Costs to store the natural gas are recognized in the period the costs are incurred. We recognize revenues and cost of natural gas sold in our statement of consolidated income in the period we sell gas and it is delivered out of the storage facility.

    The derivatives we use to mitigate commodity price risk and substantially lock in the operating margin upon the sale of stored natural gas are accounted for at fair value and marked to market each period, with changes in fair value recognized as unrealized gains or losses in the period of change. This difference in accounting — the lower of weighted average cost or market basis for our storage inventory versus the fair value accounting for the derivatives used to mitigate commodity price risk — can and does result in volatility in our reported earnings.

    Over time, gains or losses on the sale of storage inventory will be substantially offset by losses or gains on the derivatives, resulting in realization of the economic profit margin we expected when we entered into the transactions. This accounting difference causes Sequent’s earnings on its storage positions to be affected by natural gas price changes, even though the economic profits remain essentially unchanged.

    SouthStar also uses derivative instruments to manage exposures arising from changing commodity prices. SouthStar’s objective for holding these derivatives is to minimize volatility in wholesale commodity natural gas prices. A portion of SouthStar’s derivative transactions are designated as cash flow hedges under authoritative guidance related to derivatives and hedging. Derivative gains or losses arising from cash flow hedges are recorded in OCI and are reclassified into earnings in the same period the underlying hedged item is reflected in the income statement. As of December 31, 2009, the ending balance in OCI for derivative transactions designated as cash flow hedges under the guidance was a loss of $4 million, net of noncontrolling interest and taxes. Any hedge ineffectiveness, defined as when the gains or losses on the hedging instrument do not offset the losses or gains on the hedged item, is recorded into earnings in the period in which it occurs. SouthStar currently has minimal hedge ineffectiveness. SouthStar’s remaining derivative instruments are not designated as hedges under the guidance. Therefore, changes in their fair value are recorded in earnings in the period of change.

    SouthStar also enters into weather derivative instruments in order to stabilize operating margins in the event of warmer-thannormal and colder-than-normal weather in the winter months. These contracts are accounted for using the intrinsic value method under the authoritative guidance related to financial instruments. Changes in the intrinsic value of these derivatives are recorded in earnings in the period of change. The weather derivative contracts contain strike amount provisions based on cumulative heating degree days for the covered periods. In 2009, 2008 and 2007, SouthStar entered into weather derivatives (swaps and options) for the respective winter heating seasons, primarily from November through March. As of December 31, 2009, SouthStar recorded a current asset of $2 million for this hedging activity.

    Contingencies Our accounting policies for contingencies cover a variety of business activities, including contingencies for potentially uncollectible receivables, rate matters, and legal and environmental exposures. We accrue for these contingencies when our assessments indicate that it is probable that a liability has been incurred or an asset will not be recovered, and an amount can be reasonably estimated in accordance with authoritative guidance related to contingencies.We base our estimates for these liabilities on currently available facts and our estimates of the ultimate outcome or resolution of the liability in the future. Actual results may differ from estimates, and estimates can be, and often are, revised either negatively or positively, depending on actual outcomes or changes in the facts or expectations surrounding each potential exposure.

    Pension and Other Postretirement Plans Our pension and other postretirement plan costs and liabilities are determined on an actuarial basis and are affected by numerous assumptions and estimates including the market value of plan assets, estimates of the expected return on plan assets, assumed discount rates and current demographic and actuarial mortality data. We annually review the estimates and assumptions underlying our pension and other postretirement plan costs and liabilities. The assumed discount rate and the expected return on plan assets are the assumptions that generally have the most significant impact on our pension costs and liabilities. The assumed discount rate, the expected return on assets, the assumed health care cost trend rate and the assumed rates of retirement generally have the most significant impact on our postretirement plan costs and liabilities.

    The discount rate is utilized in calculating the actuarial present value of our pension and postretirement obligations and net pension and postretirement costs. When establishing our discount rate, we consider a variety of factors in determining and selecting our assumptions for the discount rate. With the assistance of our actuaries, we consider certain market indices, including Moody’s Corporate AA long-term bond rate, the Citigroup Pension Liability rate, other high-grade bond indices and a single equivalent discount rate derived utilizing the forecasted future cash flows in each year to the appropriate spot rates based on high quality (AA or better) corporate bonds.

    The expected long-term rate of return on assets is used to calculate the expected return on plan assets component of our annual pension and postretirement plan cost. We estimate the expected return on plan assets by evaluating expected bond returns, equity risk premiums, asset allocations, the effects of active plan management, the impact of periodic plan asset rebalancing and historical performance. We also consider guidance from our investment advisors in making a final determination of our expected rate of return on assets. To the extent the actual rate of return on assets realized over the course of a year is greater than or less than the assumed rate, that year’s annual pension or postretirement plan cost is not affected. Rather, this gain or loss reduces or increases future pension or postretirement plan costs.

    During 2009, we recorded net periodic benefit costs of $12 million related to our defined pension and postretirement benefit costs. We estimate that in 2010, we will record net periodic pension and other postretirement benefit costs in the range of $15 million to $17 million, a $3 million to $5 million increase compared to 2009. In determining our estimated expenses for 2010, our actuarial consultant assumed an 8.75% expected return on plan assets and a discount rate of 6% for the AGL Retirement Plan and 5.75% for the NUI Retirement Plan and for our postretirement plan. The actuarial assumptions used may differ materially from actual results due to changingmarket and economic conditions, higher or lower withdrawal and retirement rates, and longer or shorter life spans of participants. These differences may result in a significant impact on the amount of pension and postretirement expense recorded in future periods. The following table illustrates the effect of changing the critical actuarial assumptions for our pension and postretirement plans, as discussed previously, while holding all other assumptions constant.

    In millions
    Actuarial assumptions
    Percentage-point change in assumption
    Increase (decrease) in ABO
    Increase (decrease) in cost
    Expected long-term
    return on plan assets
    +/- 1%
    $ – / –
    $(4) / 4
    Discount rate
    +/- 1%
    (58) / 64
    (5) / 5

    Effective on July 1, 2009, all post-65 health coverage except for the retiree health care reimbursement account and opt-out benefits was eliminated. There were no changes to the life insurance plan. Effective January 1, 2010, enhancements were made to the pre-65 medical coverage by removing the current cap on the expected costs and implementation of a new cap determined by the new retiree premium schedule based on salary level and years of service. Consequently, a one-percentage-point increase or decrease in the assumed health care trend rate does not materially affect the periodic benefit cost or our accumulated projected benefit obligation for our postretirement plans. Our assumed rate of retirement is estimated based upon an annual review of participant census information as of the measurement date.

    At December 31, 2009, our pension and postretirement liability decreased by approximately $48 million, primarily resulting from an after-tax gain to OCI of $17 million ($28 million before tax), 2009 contributions of $24 million and $8 million in benefit payments that we funded offset by $12 million in net pension and postretirement benefit costs we recorded in 2009. These changes reflect our funding contributions to the plan, benefit payments out of the plans, and updated valuations for the projected benefit obligation (PBO) and plan assets.

    Equity market performance and corporate bond rates have a significant effect on our reported unfunded PBO and accumulated postretirement benefit obligation, as the primary factors that drive the value of our unfunded accumulated benefit obligation are the assumed discount rate and the actual return on plan assets. Additionally, for our largest pension plan equity market performance has a significant effect on our market-related value of plan assets (MRVPA), which is a calculated value and differs from the actual market value of plan assets. The MRVPA recognizes differences between the actual market value and expected market value of our plan assets and is determined by our actuaries using a five-year moving weighted average methodology. Gains and losses on plan assets are spread through the MRVPA based on the five-year moving weighted average methodology, which affects the expected return on plan assets component of pension expense.

    Differences between actuarial assumptions and actual plan results are deferred and amortized into cost when the accumulated differences exceed 10% of the greater of the PBO or the MRVPA. If necessary, the excess is amortized over the average remaining service period of active employees.

    See “Note 3, Employee Benefit Plans,” for additional information on our pension and postretirement plans, which includes our investment policies and strategies, target allocation ranges and weighted average asset allocations for 2009 and 2008.

    Income Taxes We account for income taxes in accordance with authoritative guidance related to income taxes which require that deferred tax assets and liabilities be recognized using enacted tax rates for the effect of temporary differences between the book and tax basis of recorded assets and liabilities. The guidance also requires that deferred tax assets be reduced by a valuation if it is more likely than not that some portion or all of the deferred tax asset will not be realized. As of December 31, 2008 and December 31, 2009, we did not have a liability for unrecognized tax benefits. As a result of our adoption of new authoritative guidance related to consolidations, income tax expense and our effective tax rate are determined from earnings before income tax less net income attributable to the noncontrolling interest. For more information on our adoption of this guidance, see Note 5.

    Our net long-term deferred tax liability totaled $695 million at December 31, 2009 (see Note 8 “Income Taxes”). This liability is estimated based on the expected future tax consequences of items recognized in the financial statements. After application of the federal statutory tax rate to book income, judgment is required with respect to the timing and deductibility of expense in our income tax returns. For state income tax and other taxes, judgment is also required with respect to the apportionment among the various jurisdictions. A valuation allowance is recorded if we expect that it is more likely than not that our deferred tax assets will not be realized. We had a $3 million valuation allowance on $79 million of deferred tax assets as of December 31, 2009, reflecting the expectation that most of these assets will be realized. In addition, we operate within multiple taxing jurisdictions and we are subject to audit in these jurisdictions. These audits can involve complex issues, which may require an extended period of time to resolve. We maintain a liability for the estimate of potential income tax exposure and in our opinion adequate provisions for income taxes have been made for all years.