Utahns will be paying a little less this winter for natural gas but whether bills go up or down compared with last year will depend on how cold it gets in the coming months.
Last winter, Utahns had the best of both worlds in terms of their heating bills unusually mild temperatures combined with low natural gas prices.
This coming winter natural gas prices in Utah will even be a bit lower than last year about 3 percent less, according to Questar Gas Co.
But if the winter is colder than last year temperatures are predicted to be closer to normal Utahns could find their furnaces needing to run a little longer each day to keep the chill at bay.
"Were I to guess, I'd say this coming winter will probably be a little cooler and a little wetter than last year," said Larry Dunn, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. "Of course, we were so warm and so dry last year that any reversion back toward [normal] will take us in that direction."
Regardless, Utahns should be better off than their counterparts in the rest of the country who also use natural gas to heat their homes and typically pay far higher prices related to a variety of factors that include differences in regional supplies and varying state regulations.
Questar Gas is providing natural gas to its Utah customers for $4.16 per decatherm, which is roughly the heat content found in 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas. And that is 13 cents less than last year and 46 cents, or 10 percent, below the five-year average of $4.62.
"Prices are still down and seem to be pretty stable, so we don't anticipate any increase in the cost of natural gas this coming winter," Questar Gas spokesman Darren Shepherd said.
Natural gas prices are relatively low because of a dramatic increase in domestic natural gas production over the past five years, a result of the increased use of "fracking," a drilling method that has yielded the recovery of vast supplies of previously inaccessible natural gas.
In its latest "Winter Fuels Outlook," the Energy Information Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, projects that U.S. households that use natural gas on average will spend about $89, or 15 percent, more this winter than last winter.
Its projection is for a little less than a "1 percent increase in the average residential price (for natural gas) and a 14 percent increase in consumption" based upon forecasts of a colder winter this year than last.
Households in other parts of the country won't fare so well. Those that use heating oil, mostly in the East, are expected to pay the highest prices ever for the commodity. That will result in record heating bills for the winter, with an average of $2,494. That's nearly $200 more than the previous high, set in the winter of 2010-2011.
Just 6 percent of the nation's households use heating oil, but they tend to be in some of the coldest parts of the country where heating needs are high, mainly in the Northeast. About half use natural gas for heat and 38 percent use electricity. Five percent of households use propane and 2 percent use wood.
Heating oil will hit record prices because it is made from crude oil. Crude is priced globally, and has stayed high because of increasing world demand, worries about supply disruptions in the Middle East, and stimulus programs from central banks around the world that encourage investment in oil and other commodities. Oil has averaged $95.95 per barrel in the U.S. so far this year, up from an average of $94.86 in 2011.
"It's two different worlds. For most families this is still going to be an affordable year, except for those who use oil heat," said Mark Wolfe, the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Director's Association. "For them, it's going to be very difficult."
Twitter: @OberbeckBiz Tips for saving on heating costs
One way to lower your heating bill is to don fluffy slippers and turn down the thermostat. Here are a few others:
Open drapes when you are getting direct sunlight, then close them at night to keep heat from escaping.
Make sure the damper in your fireplace is closed when you aren't using it.
Keep air vents clean and uncovered so heat can easily flow throughout your home.
Shut off kitchen fans and bathroom fans as soon as they are no longer needed.
Lower the temperature of your water heater. That can be done without your shower getting noticeably less steamy.