The Oklahoman

Why your heating bill could soar

Customers may see costs rise as much as 75%

- Nathan Bomey

Break out the sweater. And maybe a blanket too.

You might want to keep the temperatur­e turned down this winter. That’s because heating bills are expected to soar after a spike in oil and natural gas prices amid the global economic recovery and a move away from fossil fuels toward renewables.

While oil, coal and natural gas might not be used forever, they’re still crucial to the world’s energy infrastruc­ture for now. And prices of those commoditie­s are poised to make it the most expensive winter in recent memory for Americans living in cold climates.

U.S. prices of natural gas are about three times higher than at this point in 2020. Prices have reached a 13-year high, according to the Internatio­nal Energy Agency, an organizati­on that advises government­s on energy policy.

That doesn’t mean bills will go up threefold because the entire cost difference won’t be passed along to consumers. But it does mean you might want to dress warmly around the house.

It’s a sharp reversal from the last five years or so when an expansion of the fracking technique in shale oil fields led to ample natural gas and low heating bills.

“Nobody’s been paying close attention to their natural gas heating bill,” said Rob Thummel, an investment manager focusing on energy at Tortoise Capital. “In fact, in a lot of cases, your bills have been going down.”

No more.

Here’s what’s happening with your heating bill:

How much will bills go up?

It depends on numerous factors, including the exact area where you live and the weather.

If it’s a normal winter, the average customer’s bill could increase by 50% to 75%, Thummel predicted.

A warmer-than-usual winter could limit bill increases to about 25%, he projected.

But if it’s colder than normal? That’s when things could get really pricey. He did not specify how much so.

“Globally, the key drivers of energy market dynamics over the coming months will be the severity of the Northern Hemisphere winter, the strength of economic growth trends and the magnitude of unplanned supply outages,” the IEA reported.

Why natural gas is in short supply

Well, natural gas has become increasing­ly popular in foreign countries in recent years as utilities and nations have turned to the commodity to replace coal.

While natural gas is still a carbonemit­ting fossil fuel, it’s cleaner than coal. The upshot is that natural gas can help nations meet their commitment­s to slashing greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change.

Demand has been especially high in Europe and Asia, neither of which were major natural gas users until recently. Now that they’re putting strain on the supply of the commodity, the price of the fuel, which is driven by the global market, has increased for Americans too.

Some countries are now turning back to coal in the short run amid the spike in natural gas prices. But that’s leading to a spike in coal prices in a costly loop for consumers.

Are we going to run out of natural gas?

Not anytime soon. Thummel called the U.S. the Saudi Arabia of natural gas and estimated that the nation has a 100year supply undergroun­d.

But what about the infrastruc­ture needed to transport natural gas? That’s in short supply. Basically, the U.S. doesn’t have enough export facilities, pipelines and storage to quickly increase capacity, Thummel said.

What’s more, he added, investors have rewarded energy companies in recent years for returning cash to shareholde­rs rather than investing in new production.

This confluence of events is underminin­g access to the fuel used to run your furnace.

How is oil affecting heating bills?

Most Americans don’t use oil to heat their homes, save for some in the Northeast. But those who do will feel the pain as well.

The U.S. price of oil has risen to more than $80 per barrel, up from the low $60s in September, amid increased global demand as the economy recovers during the pandemic.

Normally, that wouldn’t be much of an issue as oil producers like the Organizati­on of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and U.S. shale energy companies would simply add more equipment to extract more oil.

But energy companies have been rethinking whether they want to continue plowing money into fossil fuel production amid a political turn away from carbon-emitting energy.

So they are less likely to turn the spigots on this time around. For example, gas fields in the Groningen area of the Netherland­s are being shut down in 2022, according to the IEA.

And Exxon is reportedly reconsider­ing major investment­s in natural gas projects, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Meanwhile, consumers who do use heating oil are poised to pay more this winter, depending on where prices settle.

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