Slightly Lower Heating Costs Is Cold Comfort to Americans

Yesterday the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted what Americans will spend to heat their homes this winter. For households using natural gas, consumers can expect to pay $826, down from a record $945 last winter. But this modest decline is cold comfort when costs have nearly doubled in five years: they were $465 in the winter of 2001-2002, $600 in 2002-2003, $659 in 2003-2004, and $741 in 2004-2005. Natural gas is the most widely used winter heating fuel in the United States, used by 58 percent of all U.S. households.

This winter’s small cost break follows an unusual combination of events – curtailed production after last year’s hurricanes and a record warm winter that dramatically reduced consumption. But make no mistake, the natural gas crisis hasn’t gone anywhere. Natural gas prices continue their march upward, U.S. jobs are being shed by the millions, and the nation’s competitiveness, economy and security remain at risk – due in large measure to current federal energy policies.

The nation simply can no longer afford a ‘fair weather’ energy policy under which a warm winter represents our only relief from steadily rising energy prices. Instead, what residential and industrial energy consumers need is for Congress to change federal energy policies so that Americans have greater access to our own abundant natural gas supplies in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Decades-old energy policies have placed 85 percent of these supplies off-limits while demand rises – driving natural gas prices higher and making the nation less competitive internationally. Every American pays the price for these irrational and outdated policies.
My sector is the largest industrial user of natural gas, so we know the damaging impacts of five years of rising U.S. natural gas prices first-hand. We’ve seen more than 100,000 of our jobs disappear since 2000, when U.S. natural gas prices began climbing. These jobs have been lost or sent overseas, where natural gas is far more affordable.

Many other Americans whose livelihoods depend on affordable natural gas are facing similar experiences – from farmers, homeowners, other manufacturing industries and workers to small businesses, schools, hospitals and low-income consumers. U.S. natural gas price increases have been a key factor in the loss of 3.1 million manufacturing jobs and 182,000 forest and paper industry jobs since 2000, and it’s why 36 percent of the U.S. fertilizer industry has been shut down or mothballed. The breadth and depth of the natural gas crisis is one reason that my industry is so involved in the Consumer Alliance for Energy Security, a coalition of organizations representing millions of these Americans.

This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate each passed OCS energy legislation that can help make natural gas more affordable, retain American jobs, enhance security and strengthen the economy. Now we are counting on Congress to keep its word, finish the job and enable OCS legislation to become law this year. When Congress returns following the mid-term elections, energy legislation belongs at the top of its priority list.