Forget the Gas Pump -- Heating Bills May Be the Killer This Winter


According to the United Kingdom's National Housing Federation, one in four residents are facing "fuel poverty," spending more than 10 percent of their household income on fuel bills. By the end of 2009, 5.7 million UK households will be spending at least 10 percent of their income on energy bills. That's a 100 percent increase since 2005.

Closer to home, the United States Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration estimates each American household will pay, on average, $1,182 in heating costs this winter -- a 20 percent increase from last winter and a 65 percent increase from the winter of 2003/04.

Yet, a closer look reveals that this pain isn't shared equally. Costs are a reflection of a host of factors including geography, consumption levels, and the quality of energy used.

Northeasterners who heat with oil will see the steepest increase. They will pay, on average, over 37 percent more for heat than they did last winter (over $1,500 dollars). The price is a reflection of the nearly 200 percent increase in costs of home heating oil since the winter of 2003/04.

Meanwhile, Westerners who heat with gas will see the benefits of stepped-up natural gas production reflected in the lowest regional costs in the country. Don't plan a parade. They'll still be hit with an approximate 24 percent increase from last winter because the cost of natural gas has climbed 61 percent in the last five years.

The difference between the fuel prices for New Englanders and Midwesterners is just one example of consumers facing higher prices because of the decisions made by local governments and utility providers.

While many of us have found ways to cut back on our fossil fuel use-using efficient appliances, insulating drafty roofs, weather-stripping windows, or biking to work -- the price of heating oil and gasoline is largely outside of our control. But this energy crisis is creating an opportunity for us consumers to take back our power.

Higher prices have spawned increased concern and awareness about our energy sources. We have more information than every before. On the precipice of an election, the time is right to demand our governments and utility companies explore renewable energy alternatives that will ultimately create more jobs, sustained revenue, and a healthier environment.

Our demands mustn't stop there. In addition to considering what we use and how we use it, we must consider issues of race and class. The impacts of rising temperatures, fossil fuels prices, and heating and food costs disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among us.

Because prices are increasing across the board, low-income families will continue to spend greater amounts on the necessities that already represent a large proportion of their budgets than other socio-economic groups.

In addition, our most polluting energy sources and industries usually end up in communities of color and low-income communities, burdening these populations with poor air, compromised water quality, and greater health-risks. Controlling for all other factors, race is the primary determinant of this environmental injustice yet people of color are twice as likely to be uninsured than Caucasians.

Add this public health cost to the rising costs of food, gas, housing, and the economic failings from Wall Street to Main Street. What we see isn't just the potential for fuel poverty, but over-arching poverty.

There is no magic bullet that will solve these challenges, but forward-thinking economists and environmentalists recognize that the solutions to both planetary and monetary woes lie within the problem, and are intricately tied together. As the rising cost of fossil fuels handicap all those who rely on them, a new focus on renewable energy will not only ease our addiction, it could create a cutting-edge domestic energy industry, along with and thousands of new jobs, many for those in lower-income communities.

"Green-collar jobs" provide a viable alternative to both economic and environmental woes, while at the same time involving populations that have been largely overlooked in past economic and energy policy decisions.

In 2006, renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies generated 8.5 million new jobs, nearly $970 billion in revenue, and more than $100 billion in industry profits. The new United Nations Report on the Environment predicts the global market for environmental products and services will double by 2020.

Pitting the economy against the environment creates a false opposition. It is the justification used to pillage our natural resources and keep the United States shackled to big oil companies and rapidly dwindling resources.

Green jobs demonstrate what's good for the economy can and will be good for communities. Bailouts notwithstanding, we have no time to wait. The green collar economy is an essential step to ensuring the people who are already suffering the most egregious impacts of the economic downturn will not be further disempowered.

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