Diane Cardwelland Clifford Krauss

NORTH BROOKFIELD, MASS.: When David Harris built his 2,000-square-foot hilltop home nine years ago, he wanted to put in natural gas, but the utility wouldn’t run a line to his house. Like many people here, he was stuck using heating oil.


Harris added a wood stove to help cut costs and now uses only about one-third of the oil the house would otherwise need. But that did not stop a deliveryman for Crowley Fuel from handing him a $471.21 bill earlier this month for a refill that should get him to April.


“You just cross your fingers and hope that it doesn’t get too much worse,” Harris said.


Actually, it probably will — for him and the residents of the roughly 8 million other U.S. homes that use heating oil, mostly in a band from Maine to Pennsylvania.


While natural gas prices have plummeted to 10-year lows, heating oil prices have been steadily rising for years and are expected to reach record levels this winter, precipitated by higher costs for crude oil and the shutdown of several crucial refineries in the Northeast and in Europe. The Energy Department projects a price of $3.79 a gallon over the next few months, more than a dollar above the winter average for the last five years.


With electricity prices also down, utilities are trumpeting that bills will drop this season for customers using gas and electric heat. Con Edison announced this week that residential gas heating bills in New York were expected to drop 11.5 percent this winter, and in New Jersey, PSE&G said that it would cut February bills for residential gas customers by an average of $30.


“The people who have been unable to switch off of heating oil will be increasingly penalized in the coming years,” said Jay Hakes, a former administrator of the Energy Information Administration and now the director of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. “There’s going to be a continuing incentive to get off heating oil, because every day the headlines and experts say that over the foreseeable future, we will have natural gas at attractive prices.”


Nationwide, the average household using oil spent $2,298 on heat last year, compared with $724 spent by gas users and $957 spent by electricity users, according to the Energy Department.


This year, heating oil users are expected to spend 3.7 percent more than last year, while natural gas customers are expected to spend 7.3 percent less and electricity users will spend 2.4 percent less, according to the department.


Cheap natural gas was part of the appeal for Gus Kontoudakis, who spent about $3,000 to switch from oil at the home he rents out in Plainfield, Conn.


“I checked the bill and saw the difference and convinced myself to change it and give a break to my tenants,” he said, adding that the oil heat was costing him about double what he now paid Yankee Gas.


But many oil users — living in places like Alaska, Maine and even affluent parts of Manhattan — do not have that option. Some are too far from a pipeline. For others, converting to natural gas is unaffordable, with costs that can run to tens of thousands of dollars. As a result, they are trapped in a cycle of spending more and more for heat while those who use natural gas and electricity are generally spending less and less.