Spiraling fuel prices could hit low-income Marylanders hard this winter. State officials who distribute energy assistance to the poor are worried that they will be swamped with requests for aid at a time when it is uncertain how much money will be available.

Mary Lou Kueffer, director of Maryland's Office of Home Energy Programs, said she expects demand for heating oil and natural gas aid to rise. Last year, about 83,000 people applied for assistance through the federally funded Maryland Energy Assistance Program, an increase of 5 percent from 2003.

Kueffer said her program would have difficulty meeting this year's demand with last year's budget.

"It is a concern whether we'll be able to make it this year," Kueffer said. "If we have a particularly harsh winter, demand will increase even more."

Kueffer said officials will not know until the end of next month how much money will be available for the program. She expects it to be around the $29 million received last winter but is concerned it might be less.

"Until Congress votes, we don't know for sure," she said.

Congress is considering a budget for the program that would be slightly less than the $2.2 billion made available nationwide last year, according to figures from the Department of Health and Human Services.

David Fox, who heads the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, a Washington-based advocacy group composed of charities and energy providers, said the proposed funding is not enough.

Fox said only 15 percent of eligible families applied for help last year nationwide, but he expects the number to grow as more homeowners and renters find themselves unable to cope with heating bills.

"Those dollar amounts are not going to stretch as far," Fox said. "Do we have a problem? Yes, indeed."

Fox said low-income people have traditionally done everything they could to pay their energy bills, including skipping meals and going without medicine, but often "there comes a time when whatever they're doing is not enough, and people who never applied for [assistance] are going to be in a position where they have to."

In Maryland, Kueffer said, people who are eligible are often reluctant to sign up for help, but she expects many of those people to be "pushed over the edge" by prices this year.

Eligibility for assistance in Maryland is based on monthly income -- for a family of four, the maximum is $2,419; it is $1,196 for a single person.

Pete Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Dealers Association, whose members provide 90 percent of Maryland's heating oil, said he did not anticipate supply problems.

"The product will be available," Horrigan said, "and if they're purchasing from a legitimate dealer, that dealer is doing everything they can to keep the price down."

Horrigan said that though little of Maryland's oil comes from the Gulf Coast areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, the storm's effects on the world energy market would cause local prices to rise.

Horrigan said dealers are concerned that higher prices could lead to more unpaid bills. Most dealers give customers 30 days to pay, but their suppliers often require payment in 10 days, leading to a crunch for dealers who need to refill their stocks.

Dave Costello, an economist for the federal Energy Information Administration, said prices are expected to continue to rise and were up last month, the most recent period for which figures were available.

The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that the cost of home heating oil this winter will be almost 16 percent higher than the year before -- and nearly double that of four years ago.

After the hurricane, however, "last month is ancient history," Costello said. "It's just a different world."

Said Fox: "Quite frankly, the only saving grace is if we have a mild winter. It's a difficult situation where all we can do is keep our fingers crossed."

A farm near Hughesville, photographed in February. As prices for heating oil and natural gas rise, Congress is considering an energy assistance budget that would be slightly less than last year's.