Utah taxpayers may save up to $700,000 on the state's heating bill this year, thanks to a natural gas purchasing contract allowing the state to buy the product directly from producers.

The state prison, state hospital, Weber State College, the University of Utah, Utah State University, the state Capitol complex and the American Fork Training School will be supplied with natural gas for heating through a two-year agreement with Williams Gas Marketing.The agreement follows a three-year effort by Weber State College purchasing director Bob Nielsen who refused to give in to apathy among state government officials.

"I became aware of the possibility in 1985," said Nielsen, who had been reading literature on the subject. A federal ruling made it possible for natural gas users to purchase directly from producers and have pipeline companies and local distributors, such as Utah's Mountain Fuel Supply, make delivery to the point of use.

"I went through the (state) department of energy conservation and development, the state lands and forestry division and even the Public Service Commission," Nielsen said. "They were all less than helpful. They acted like they just wanted me to go away."

Nielsen's persistence eventually led him to Kevin Higgins, assistant director of the Utah Energy Office. That contact generated the first positive response and eventually, the idea found acceptance.

Higgins said success came when the Utah Public Service Commission began hearings to finalize rules on gas transportation in Utah. The Utah Energy Office intervened and won a concession from the PSC allowing medium sized gas users to participate in the direct purchase concept. Higgins said efforts are under way to identify other state agencies eligible for direct purchase and add them to the program.