Some of the most common types of fuel used for heating will cost households 32 to 48 percent more this winter than last year, according to the latest government forecast, released yesterday.
The steepest increase will be for natural gas, with the average household paying $350, or 48 percent, more this winter, according to the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration. Households using heating oil face a 32 percent increase, or an additional $378. The average bill for households using electricity to heat their homes is expected to climb $38, or 5 percent, over last winter.
Hardest hit by increasing heating bills will be people with low incomes who already have been spending more on gasoline. State officials have been pressing Congress for more funding for a program that provides financial assistance to help low-income people pay winter heating bills.
"This is just going to further squeeze their available spending power and mean they are going to have to cut back on some other necessity," said Charles Clinton, director of the D.C. Energy Office, which assists with heating bills.
In Maryland, officials are expecting that an increasing number of residents will need help paying their heating bills. The state expects about 88,000 to seek assistance, up about 5,000 from last winter, said Ralph Markus, deputy director of the state's Office of Home Energy Programs.
The pool of eligible families has not grown, but rising heating costs will spark more requests for help, Markus said. "Now, with the price increases, a lot of these people will apply," he said.
Karen Ebb, 50, of Southeast Washington, said she already has filed an application for help in paying her heating bill.
"It will be entirely too high for me to pay," said Ebb, who is on disability. "I don't know how I'd be able to do it."
Guy F. Caruso, administrator of the Energy Information Administration, said households are "going to want to do everything they can to reduce their consumption of heating fuels." The Energy Department has launched a campaign urging conservation.
The forecast assumes temperatures will be just below average and notes that changes in temperature will cause the projections to vary. Heating bills can also vary widely by region. Thermostat settings and the size and efficiency of homes, among other factors, also play a role.
Natural gas is used for heating in 53 percent of Washington area households, according to a 1998 census survey. Thirty-six percent use electricity, and 8 percent use heating oil.
Locally, Washington Gas has said household winter bills could rise by as much as 32 percent over a year ago. The company has said it placed significant amounts of natural gas in storage over the summer when prices were lower, helping buffer customers from more significant increases.
Natural gas prices have been climbing steadily in recent years as supplies have not kept pace with demand. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused a significant spike in prices because the storms idled large amounts of natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.
The cost of crude oil, from which heating oil is produced, is expected to be higher this year compared with last because of tight supplies. The hurricanes also damaged oil production in the gulf and crippled refineries that process that oil, contributing to higher prices, analysts said.
Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.