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Chilly Winter Forecast Means Higher Heating Bills For Consumers

Meg Handley

It looks like Americans--and their wallets--won't get much time to recover from record-high cooling costs this steamy summer.

After the warmest winter on record last year, much chillier weather is in store according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and that means consumers could be facing much higher heating bills in coming months.

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Heating costs will rise about 20 percent for heating oil users, 15 percent for natural gas customers, 13 percent for propane customers, and 5 percent for electricity customers, according to the Energy Information Administration.

"The forecast for higher household expenditures primarily reflects a return to roughly normal winter temperatures east of the Rocky Mountains compared with last winter's unusual warmth," the EIA report noted.

Heating oil consumers are expected to pay $3.80 per gallon on average--the highest price ever--which will drive heating bills for those consumers to a record high of about $2,500 on average.

Those who use natural gas, propane or electricity to heat their homes might see slightly higher costs based on increased usage, but they'll still likely see lower bills than they would in a typical winter due to relatively low prices. Natural gas prices have fallen to record lows thanks to a windfall in production in the U.S. in recent years. While prices are expected to increase almost 1 percent this year, they're still at virtually rock-bottom levels. Propane gas and electricity prices are projected to fall 2 percent and 4 percent respectively, which will help ease the cost burden of more heating demand this winter.

"It's two different worlds," Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Director's Association, told the Associated Press. "For most families this is still going to be an affordable year, except for those who use oil heat. For them, it's going to be very difficult."

Only about 6 percent of American households use heating oil, according to the EIA, but those homes tend to be in some of the coldest regions in the country. About half of the nation's households use natural gas for heating, 38 percent use electricity, and 5 percent use propane.

But according to EIA spokesman Jonathan Cogan, there's still a lot of uncertainty that could impact heating costs in both directions, especially when it comes to heating oil.

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"There are two big uncertainties: what happens with the weather and what happens with world crude oil markets," he says.

If the weather is milder than NOAA projects, consumers could see much flatter increases in heating costs. If the weather is more severe, cost increases could be much more acute, Cogan says.

Because it's made from crude oil, heating oil costs will increase if crude oil prices increase. Crude oil prices are still high by historical standards, but how the winter weather plays out will be the bigger driver. If the weather is colder, consumption and demand for heating oil will increase, which would put further upward pressure on prices, Cogan says.

Meg Handley is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at mhandley@usnews.com.

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