Millions of Americans are shelling out more than $3 per gallon for gasoline as they hit the roads while those staying home will be racking up big heating bills. Worse, this costly double whammy could last all winter.

This situation ought to prod the federal government into doing the right thing on energy. More likely, Washington will continue contributing to the problem.

Despite high energy costs in recent years, so far we’ve avoided an overly expensive winter. Either energy prices backed off a bit before it got cold, as they did last winter, or we had remarkably mild temperatures, as happened the winter before that. But this year, we head into the cold weather months with high prices and a real possibility for the most expensive heating season ever.

Nearly 60 percent of America’s homes are heated with natural gas, and current wholesale prices are more than triple the price a decade ago. Though the rise in gasoline prices has attracted most of the attention in recent years, the hike in natural gas has been almost as bad.

Natural gas expenditures this winter are expected to be 10 percent above last winter’s levels, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s bad enough, but if temperatures turn out to be colder than normal, it will be one for the record books.

Washington deserves much of the blame. Tough measures in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments targeted new coal-fired power plants, and few have been built since. But America’s electricity needs kept expanding, so growing demand has largely been met by building natural gas-using facilities. In less than two decades, plants that use natural gas to generate electricity have gone from relatively minor players to providing 20 percent of our electricity needs.

About 25 percent of our natural gas supply now goes to electric utilities, rather than residential and other uses. Naturally, this added demand has raised the price.

At the same time federal policy drove up demand for natural gas, it has also suppressed the supply. Tremendous reserves of natural gas, both onshore and offshore, have been placed off limits due to various environmental restrictions. A report from the U.S. Department of the Interior estimates that there is 187 trillion cubic feet of natural gas on federally controlled lands, enough to serve America’s residential needs for nearly 39 years. Another Interior report estimates that we can find even more natural gas offshore.

However, only some of this energy is accessible. A 2004 Department of Energy report identified “more than 30 environmental policy and regulatory impediments to domestic natural gas production.” Interior estimates that 27 percent of our onshore natural gas is completely off limits, and another 60 percent is subject to significant restrictions. Similar constraints also limit offshore natural gas production.

With Washington simultaneously increasing demand for natural gas while putting the squeeze on supply, it is little wonder that prices have skyrocketed. For natural gas-using homeowners, this has meant higher energy bills, especially in the winter.

An additional 7 percent of Americans use heating oil, mostly in the Northeast. Eighty percent of Maine homes use oil for heat, highest in the nation. Along with gasoline, it is made from petroleum and is at or near record prices. Like natural gas, restrictions on domestic production have contributed to the price increases, as have regulations making it difficult to build more refineries.

Most of the rest of America’s homes use either electricity or propane for heating, both of which have also gone up.

Yet Washington is poised to crack down further on the energy sources used to heat our homes. The pending energy bill contains provisions placing additional regulatory restrictions on domestic natural gas and oil production. And a number of bills designed to fight global warming would impose strict limits on energy use and further increase prices.

Rather than untangle its red tape, Washington’s answer to high winter energy prices has been the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program. Under LIHEAP, the federal government doles out money to states to distribute to those who can’t pay their energy bills.

But LIHEAP doesn’t address the underlying problem. A better approach would follow the same ethical advice given to doctors – first do no harm. Before the feds give out money to make energy more affordable, they should cease doing the things that have made it so unaffordable in the first place.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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