Gasoline prices have dropped a little since hitting $4 a gallon, but America's total energy bill will increase as we enter the home heating season.
The costly double whammy of still-high pump prices and potentially record-breaking heating bills underscores the need for Washington to make energy as affordable as possible. Congress soon will have a chance to do so by letting the restrictions on offshore drilling lapse and allowing this extra energy to come online.
The Energy Department projects average household heating costs to be $1,152 this winter, a $166 increase over last year and $359 more than five years ago. More than half of America's homes are heated with natural gas, which is expected to cost $162 more per household than last year. Hardest hit are those homeowners who use heating oil, which, like gasoline, is made from petroleum. They are expected to shell out some $500 more per household than last year.
Barring an unusually mild winter, this could be the most expensive heating season ever.
High energy costs hurt all consumers, but especially low- and fixed-income households because they spend a larger percentage of their budgets on energy. The federal government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) gives states funds to distribute to qualifying households that need help with their energy bills. Several legislators want to boost funding levels for the program to cope with the expensive winter ahead.
But before federal lawmakers expand programs that try to make energy more affordable, they ought to make certain that they aren't contributing to energy being so unaffordable in the first place. Washington does just that with an energy policy that keeps much of our domestic potential out of reach.
Interior Department studies estimate at least 19 billion barrels of oil and 84 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie untapped beneath the 85 percent of our territorial waters currently off-limits. That many barrels would nearly double the nation's proven oil reserves. And 84 trillion cubic feet is enough natural gas to supply America's homes for 16 years. And, it should be noted, these initial government estimates of energy in restricted areas tend to be on the low side.
These amounts, if brought online, would be more than enough to make a difference in heating oil and natural gas prices for many years to come.
The restrictions on offshore energy are based on outdated environmental fears - advances in technology have dramatically reduced the risk of oil spills, and any new domestic drilling would be subject to the strictest standards in the world. Yet Congress has renewed the restrictions annually since 1982.
Until this year. Public anger over high pump prices and polling showing 2-to-1 support for expanded offshore drilling has thus far killed efforts to extend the moratorium. It is set to expire on Sept. 30.
Thus, if Congress does nothing - a job it can handle - between now and the end of the month, almost the entire offshore would be open legally the next day. Some observers are calling it Energy Freedom Day.
Granted, the energy won't become available this winter or next. The process of leasing and developing this energy will take a number of years. But at least it could begin.
There is little doubt that, without any policy changes from Washington, we will see a return to $4 gas, if not higher. Nor is there any reason to expect heating bills will get cheaper in future winters. The first step in addressing both is making better use of American energy, and it looks as if we're about to take that step.
Ben Lieberman is senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).