WASHINGTON (AP) – As if steep gasoline prices this summer weren’t enough to make consumers grumpy, the energy crunch also could lead to higher home heating costs next winter.

While weather is a major determinant of winter heating costs, analysts said homeowners in the Northeast and Midwest may get hit harder than usual even if temperatures are in their normal range.

“I would be shocked if we don’t see soaring natural gas and heating oil prices next winter,” said Tom Kloza, director of Oil Price Information Service, a Lakewood, N.J., provider of industry data.

Already, futures prices for heating oil are trading well above $1 per gallon, or more than 35 percent above last year at a time when suppliers traditionally begin purchasing fuel for the following season.

One good sign for homeowners is that the price of crude oil has dropped from its June 1 peak of $42.33 a barrel, a trend analysts largely attribute to added supply from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Still, crude prices are more than 25 percent higher than a year ago.

Another concern is that refiners, who are focused on maximizing production of high-priced gasoline and diesel fuel, could fall behind in making next winter’s heating oil supply.

Nationwide inventories of distillate fuel, which includes diesel and heating oil, are 7.7 million barrels below the 5-year average for this time of year at 110.9 million barrels, according to Energy Department statistics.

“Whichever way you look at it,” the agency said in a recent report, “distillate fuel stocks will need to build at a faster rate in order for there to be enough supplies on hand this upcoming winter.”

The unusually expensive heating oil at this time of year presents yet another problem, according to Peter Beutel of Cameron Hanover in New Canaan, Conn.

“What these high pries have done is to have forced most heating oil distributors to put their buying plans on hold for next winter,” Beutel said. “Inherent in that is a risk. And the risk is that prices won’t come down.”

Beutel estimated that homeowners using heating oil would spend anywhere from $200-$500 more next winter, assuming they burn about 1,000 gallons during the season.

Natural gas futures are trading above $6 per 1,000 cubic feet on Nymex, or more than 10 percent higher than last year.

That means the fuel being injected into underground storage facilities these days, for use next winter, is unseasonably expensive, a cost utilities are likely to pass along to homeowners.

The good news for now, experts said, is that nationwide supplies of natural gas are in line with the 5-year average for this time of year, at 1.8 trillion cubic feet.


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