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Published: Wednesday, 9/27/2006

Good news, with a caveat

YOU can't blame consumers who want to thrust a fist into the air and yell "Yes!" because home heating costs are expected to drop this winter. Combined with the steep fall in the price of gasoline, that could make for a merrier Christmas. But dare we risk gloating?

To be sure, the lower costs today are more than welcome after last year's record home heating bills and the summer's initially high gasoline prices. Providing no hurricanes crash onto U.S. shores, Americans may face a much less expensive winter. A slow hurricane season, a record natural gas supply, and early forecasts of a milder winter could mean a little more cash in everyone's pockets.

Last winter, northwest Ohioans cringed when they got their monthly bills from Columbia Gas of Ohio. But it's a different story this year. If the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio approves Columbia's rate request, the average homeowner's bill next month will be around $37. A year ago it was $53. The gas company is seeking a 91-cent rate per 100 cubic feet of gas for October; that's 41 percent less than last October.

But it could all be undone if the weather doesn't cooperate. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita interrupted natural gas production and inhibited fuel shipments from Gulf Coast ports in 2005. The odds against that are getting steadily longer, but who really knows?

The big question, however, is whether oil prices rise again after the election. Few consumers understand how energy prices are determined, and despite what experts say, most believe politicians have a direct influence on price setting. The cost of a gallon of gas has fallen by more than a dollar a gallon in the last several weeks, and more than a few voters suspect politics is behind it.

So we'll reserve celebrating until after the election. For now, we'll happily take the lower prices, aware that we've been fooled before, too many times.

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