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More than 20,000 people signed a petition urging the state Public Service Commission to turn down National Fuel Gas Co.'s request for a 5.6 percent rate increase, the drive's organizer said Tuesday.

"I think what it says is that people are universally opposed to this rate increase at this time," said state Sen. Byron Brown, D-Buffalo, who organized the petition drive in September with help from local community groups.

The petition drive, which originally set a goal of collecting 10,000 signatures within a month, collected twice that many in a two-month span. Brown said the petition drive will continue to collect signatures and forward them monthly to PSC officials.

National Fuel's $41.3 million rate hike proposal, which would take effect next July if approved by the PSC, would add an average of $6.17 to the monthly bill of a typical residential customer on the company's budget plan. The average monthly budget plan bill would rise to $117.66 from $111.49.

Brown said the rate increase would hurt senior citizens, small businesses and families particularly hard at a time when the local economy is struggling.

Company officials said National Fuel, which has not raised its delivery charges in nine years, needs the rate increase to cover rising operating costs, including sharply higher pension and employee benefit expenses, along with increased expenses to operate and maintain its system.

"It was a step that we took reluctantly, but after nine years, it was necessary," said Julie Coppola Cox, a National Fuel spokeswoman, noting that the opportunities for the company to reduce its operating costs through steps such as increasing efficiency and reducing labor costs are dwindling.