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As fall takes hold of Western New York and cool air slices through doorways, fuel prices are heading in the wrong direction for budget-conscious consumers.

Natural gas prices surged to their highest in eight months this week. And heating oil costs rose to a six-week high as forecasts for cooler weather in our part of the nation boosted heating demand.

Temperatures in the Northeast and Midwest, the biggest heating fuel consuming regions, are expected to be below normal to much-below normal, the National Weather Service said in its most recent six- to 10-day forecast.

Even if it's colder than last year, National Fuel Gas Co. won't speculate about fuel costs this winter. But a spokeswoman wouldn't rule out that fuel costs could be higher regardless of the air temperature.

"That might be what is coming," said Julie Coppola.

She said the company has changed its buying strategies in an attempt to head off volatility and high prices that occurred last winter.

Instead of buying gas strictly at market prices, which have risen, National Fuel has begun purchasing about 30 percent of its supply at prearranged fixed prices, she said.

"The gas cost we experience is the gas costs our customers will experience," she said.

The change in buying practices was dictated by the state Public Service Commission, which wanted gas companies to purchase under fixed-price contracts.

Ms. Coppola said customers may be able to take advantage of a new feature this year and lock into a price themselves. National Fuel has a plan before the PSC for such fixed-price deals and the commission could rule on it by the end of the month.

"There's a possibility that consumers will be able to take advantage of the fixed price this winter," Ms. Coppola said. "It's a method for them to eliminate the price swings that occurred last winter."

Last December, natural gas prices were up 25 percent compared with December 1995. January prices also were up before costs dipped in February.

Natural gas for October delivery at the Henry Hub in Louisiana rose 27.9 cents, or 9.2 percent to $3.298 for each million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest for a contract nearest to expiration since Jan. 16. October heating oil soared 1.27 cents or 2.3 percent to 56.51 cents a gallon, the highest for a contract nearest to expiration since Aug. 13.

Nancy Reukauf, consumer economics educator with the Cooperative Extension Association of Erie County, said consumers should learn to conserve. For instance, they should take shorter showers and do full loads in dishwashers. Also, thermostats should be kept at constant levels but turned down when no one's home.

She also said houses and apartments need to be checked for places that can be patched. Even placing old towels under doors can help, she said, and plastic over windows does work.

"If you feel chilly and put a sweater on, put a sweater on the kids," she advised.

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