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Natural gas bills expected to soar

Much will depend on how cold it gets

WASHINGTON -- Heating bills nationwide are headed through the roof, expected to average 50 percent higher this winter for homes that use natural gas. People in parts of the Midwest are likely to pay even more -- as much as $1,600 for the winter months if the weather is especially bad.

Utility officials said yesterday they expect to have plenty of natural gas despite disruptions from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But the utilities have been paying substantially more for the fuel they have been putting in storage, and are likely to face even higher costs this winter.

Those fuel costs account for about 70 percent of what a residential customer pays, although that varies among gas utilities.

How high retail heating costs will be is likely to depend as much on the cold as anything else, with utilities forced to buy more of the expensive gas if demand increases.

''The biggest driver for natural gas bills will be weather," said Roger Cooper, executive vice president of the American Gas Association.

The AGA, which represents gas utilities, warned if there is a colder than normal winter in the Midwest, natural gas could cost homeowners as much as 70 percent more than last season.

Last year, the average gas user nationwide spent about $700 for heat in the winter, although prices in the Midwest -- where people rely heavily on natural gas for home heating -- averaged about $950 for the season.

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