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More relief is on the way for Western New Yorkers reeling from sky-high natural gas bills.

But it's coming slowly.

National Fuel Gas Co.'s rates for natural gas used during March will be 14 percent less than in February, and almost 35 percent below the all-time high it charged during January, the company said Wednesday.

Though prices have dropped to their lowest level since September, people still can expect some of their highest monthly heating costs ever during March. Rates are 34 percent higher than what the company charged last March.

"Generally we see prices come down at the end of the heating season," said Julie Coppola Cox, a National Fuel spokeswoman. "It's just that we're starting from a higher point."

If March's weather is normal, a typical National Fuel customer can expect to pay about $192 for the gas he uses this month, about $49 more than he did a year ago.

That's on top of the record-setting heat bills that Western New Yorkers already have endured since the end of October, when unusually cold weather caused consumers to use more gas than normal earlier this winter.

Even if this month's weather is perfectly normal, the average National Fuel customer will have paid $391 more than he did a year ago to heat his home during the traditional winter heating season that runs from November through March.

Last year, when gas prices were low and the weather was unusually warm, the average National Fuel customer paid $661 for natural gas during the five-month heating season. This year, those heating costs are expected to average $1,052, Cox said.

Still, the news is slowly getting better for the roughly 500,000 National Fuel customers in Western New York, as moderating temperatures during January and February have cut into the demand nationally for gas and helped push gas prices on the nation's commodity market to levels that are less than half their late December peak.

Despite a frigid start, temperatures have averaged only about 0.8 percent colder than normal between the end of October and Feb. 25. While temperatures were 3.3 percent lower than normal during November and 20.1 percent colder in December, they ran 8.7 percent above normal in January and were 10 percent warmer than usual last month.

Those warm temperatures are a double blessing for National Fuel customers. First, the above-average warmth means consumers need to use less gas to heat their homes.

That, in turn, has cut into the demand for natural gas used for heating across the northern United States, which helps explain why commodity prices for natural gas on the spot market have fallen sharply this year, tumbling by more than 50 percent through Wednesday to $5.09 per 1,000 cubic feet after peaking at $10.50 at the end of last year. But gas prices still are more than double what they were at the beginning of last year.

Cox said it's difficult to predict whether today's high gas prices will persist.

"These past 12 months or so really have changed what used to be considered normal," she said. "We're still seeing commodity prices fall. We know the exploration and production activity has increased. That certainly should help with the supply picture."

Gas prices soared late last year as unusually cold weather swept across the northern part of the country, driving up demand for natural gas at a time when gas inventories had dwindled to their lowest levels in at least seven years.

Firms traditionally build up their stockpiles of natural gas during the summer, but they were reluctant to put gas into storage last summer because the rising demand for gas, fueled in part by new gas-fired power plants, kept prices high during the warm-weather months.

In addition, low natural gas prices in the late 1990s caused energy companies to drill fewer new wells and cut back their production, leaving supplies short at a time when demand was growing.

Demand for natural gas rose by 5.2 percent last year, while supplies from domestic wells and Canadian pipelines increased just 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel grilled industry representatives. Some committee members remained skeptical and said they couldn't help but wonder if price manipulation or some other factor explained the soaring natural gas prices.

"Did demand really go up that much in the last 12 months?" said Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga.

The surge in gas prices has since sparked a flurry of new drilling, with 47 percent more drilling rigs in operation at the end of last week than a year ago, according to Baker Hughes, a Houston oil and gas drilling services firm.

But it can take six to 18 months before drilling actually increases the available supply of gas. And some producers, including National Fuel, have indicated that it could take longer than expected for new wells to come on line because of a shortage of drilling rigs.

As a result, the Energy Information Administration predicts that gas production will rise by 5.4 percent this year, while demand will grow by 2.9 percent.

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