- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Even as prices at the gas pump have fallen in recent months, the vast majority of American households are facing higher heating bills this winter, according to new figures released Tuesday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

EIA analysts estimate that 90 percent of the nation’s 116 million household will pay more for oil, natural gas and propane to heat their homes in what is expected to be a colder-than-usual winter for much of the country.

These figures stand in contrast to a separate EIA study comparing the average national rates for gasoline. Prices have, on average, decreased 20 cents to $3.43 in September. For 2012, the figure averaged at $3.63 and is expected to decline to $3.40 in 2014. Prices vary by region, with the Western states commanding the highest average prices.

The EIA’s winter outlook blames the increased heating costs on higher projected prices for electricity, natural gas and propane.

Although overall consumption will be slightly less than last year, prices for natural gas will increase $80, representing a 13 percent increase to $679.

Propane price increases have varied considerably across the nation, as only 5 percent of U.S. households use propane heat. Propane will jump $120 in the Midwest, a 9 percent increase to $1,666. Households in the Northeast, meanwhile, can expect to see a $206 increase, an 11 percent spike. These increases can be attributed to an 8 percent price bump and a 3 percent increase in consumption.

Consumers using electric heat will see a $909 spike to $2,046, a 2 percent increase. About 39 percent of U.S. households rely on electric heat, ranging from 14 percent in the Northeast to 63 percent in the South.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which advocates for heating assistance for low income families, worries that high heating oil prices, colder weather, and cuts in federal heating assistance will leave more families vulnerable.

“Two years ago we could help close to 2 million more families than we can now,” Mr. Wolfe told The Associated Press.

In 2010, Congress set aside $5.1 billion for heating assistance. This year, Mr. Wolfe said the aid is likely to be closer to $3 billion. “There’s no ability to respond to spikes in prices,” he said. “If this winter is really cold, it won’t be adequate.”

Several factors play a role in predicting energy usage in a given region.

Regional fuel preferences show that about one-half of all U.S. households use natural gas heating. While the South primarily uses electric heating, the West, Midwest and Northeast prefer natural gas.

Regional climates can also explain the increased heating reliance. Average heating prices will increase 10 percent in the West, compared to 15 percent in the Northeast. The Northeast expects a 3 percent colder winter compared to last year, while the West expects a winter that is slightly warmer.

Other factors can play a role, including production changes, pipeline capacity and regulatory pricing constraints.

However, two factors may lead to lower heating prices in the Northeast.

New York state, which consumes one-third of all energy costs in the Northeast, mandated ultralow sulfur heating fuel since July 2012. Other states are expected to follow suit in the near future.

Although natural gas dominates the Northeast, heating oil represents a significant 25 percent stake in all heat consumption, compared to 6 percent nationally. Consumers using heating oil can expect to spend $46 less this winter, representing a 5 percent price decrease and a 3 percent consumption increase.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.



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