COLUMBUS: Columbia Gas of Ohio has reached a settlement with a top consumer group that could end regulated pricing of natural gas by 2017.

The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel announced this week that it has dropped its opposition to the plan. The Columbus Dispatch reports that the settlement removes a key opponent to a proposal that consumer groups have said would lead to higher bills and fewer protections.

In exchange for the counsel’s shift in position, Columbia agreed to change certain parts of its proposal, including the end to regulated pricing in 2017 — one year later than the previous proposal.

And before getting rid of regulated prices, Columbia would need to hold a series of public hearings. The previous proposal had no such requirement.

The counsel said its actions are not an endorsement of the elimination of regulated pricing. It says the settlement should be seen as ensuring a better process for a future debate on the issue.

“The settlement protects residential consumers’ ability to purchase natural gas at a standard rate through Columbia at least until April 2017,” the counsel’s office said in a statement.

Other supporters of the plan include Columbia, a coalition of unregulated gas marketers and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio staff. By adding the consumers’ counsel to the mix, backers are expected to have an easier time arguing that the plan has a broad array of support.

Remaining opponents include Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy, a group that represents low-income consumers.

Currently, about four in 10 Columbia customers buy their gas from an unregulated marketer. Nearly all of the rest get the regulated price, which is set in an auction designed to provide the lowest price.

The proposal says that the regulated price could be discontinued if unregulated suppliers reach a market share of 70 percent. Once that benchmark is reached, it would trigger a new case before the public-utilities commission and public hearings.