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Published: Tuesday, 10/12/2010

Natural gas prices still low


NEW YORK - Most U.S. homeowners should get some relief on their heating bills this winter.

The price of natural gas, the fuel that supplies 70 percent of the nation's heat, is relatively low for the second year, and falling. Also, forecasters predict a warmer winter across much of the country - especially in the Southeast, which suffered through a historically cold winter last year.

But those who rely on heating oil, and residents of the Pacific Northwest, may need to bundle up. Unlike natural gas, crude oil prices have risen sharply, pushing up the price of heating oil 16 percent over last year. And forecasters are predicting a cold and snowy winter in the Northwest.

Energy prices rose sharply in the years leading up to the financial crisis, then all collapsed with the economy. Even as the economy has started to recover, natural gas prices have stayed low because supplies are ample and growing, said Jen Snyder, head of North American gas research at the analysis firm Wood Mackenzie.

Last winter the nationwide average cost to heat a home from November to March was $978, down 6 percent from the previous winter, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

Analysts say natural gas and electricity prices will stay relatively steady.

Heating oil, which is derived from crude and accounts for 17 percent of home heating, mostly in the Northeast, is another matter. Crude oil prices have risen because traders expect increasing demand from Asia and because the U.S. dollar has weakened.

Also, because heating oil is made with diesel and jet fuel, increases in demand for those fuels as the economy picks up can make for shortages of heating oil.

Forecasters think the most like-ly place for a colder than normal snap is the Pacific Northwest.

Heating assistance officials say requests for help remain high.

"In fact, it's increased. We're seeing people who may not have asked for help before," said Janet Joseph, executive director of Heating Energy Assistance Team, a nonprofit organization that directs private contributions to needy families in Georgia.

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