Home Heating to Spell "Sticker Shock"
Enjoy it while it lasts, but don't be fooled by stretches of warm, sunny days some people like to call Indian summer. That morning chill in the air soon will be here to stay. Before too long, Iowans will ring in another winter season. Ready or not here it comes.
Many Iowans enjoy the changing seasons. School children, especially, are known to wish for enough snow to trigger school cancellations during the winter months. However, parents aren't so fond of winter when blustery winds and frigid temperatures overwhelm their household budget just to pay for keeping their homes heated.
And it appears this season's heating bills may go through the roof due to already tight fuel supplies and the disruption to energy production in America's Gulf Coast caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
In early October, at least seven oil refineries in the region remained offline since the hurricanes swept through and natural gas production remained 60 percent below normal. Plus, it will take months for the damaged energy infrastructure to recover.
Many reports issued by the federal government do not make front-page news, let alone register on the radar screen of busy American families.
But when the Energy Information Administration released its winter fuels outlook report, the document broke through the sound barrier, grabbing people's attention from Wall Street to Main Street.
Estimates by the federal agency predict heating bills for fuels across the board will cost on average one-third more this winter. And that's not factoring in unusually cold winter weather. That would increase the heating tab by 50 percent more over last winter.
For those who heat their homes using natural gas, the federal agency issued a more severe warning. That means for the 75 percent of Americans who depend on natural gas to ward off the winter chill, extreme sticker shock unfortunately looms just around the corner.
It's estimated that Midwestern households could spend 48 percent more for natural gas than last season. Propane users can expect an increase of 30 percent over last year.
Households using electricity will feel less of a pinch, with costs expected to rise five percent on average from last year.
In my visits with Iowans across the state, I understand the financial hardship borne by high heating bills. People with limited means, particularly the elderly, disabled individuals and low-income families, may find themselves forced to choose between paying for their utility bills and life's most basic essentials including prescription medicines and groceries.
A federal financial assistance program exists to help the neediest among us to pay for home energy bills. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps households afford to heat their homes and still put food on the table and stock their medicine cabinet.
Recognizing the surge in prices projected for home heating fuels, I understand it may cause serious hardship for many Iowa households to absorb the costs in their monthly budget.
In September I wrote the president to request additional LIHEAP funds to address what is likely to be a shortage in funding assistance this winter season for thousands of households.
As a federal policymaker, I have been a longtime supporter of LIHEAP.
Another closely watched government statistic made news in October when the U.S. Labor Department blamed soaring energy prices for the biggest jump in consumer prices in more than 25 years.
The Consumer Price Index gauges inflation and also dictates the cost-of-living increases for monthly Social Security checks. The 1.2 percent spike in September means that persons receiving monthly Social Security benefits will enjoy a 4.1 increase starting in 2006. That's the biggest increase since 1991.
The extra income from Social Security will help cushion strained monthly budgets. But for thousands of households, the real need still exists for paying the bills to heat their homes this winter.
Iowans interested in making an application for needs-based financial assistance to help heat their homes this winter should contact one of 18 regional Community Action Agencies administered by the Iowa Department of Human Rights. Iowans may find their regional offices by contacting the Iowa Bureau of Energy Assistance, Lucas State Office Building in Des Moines. Call 515/281-4204 or go to www.state.ia.us/government/dhr/caa for more information.