An upbeat forecast for U.S. heating fuel costs

Winter is indeed coming, but the season looks to bring much of the country above-average temperatures, at least according to the Winter Outlook issued Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That would be welcome break for Americans' heating bills because most households should find their heating costs this winter to be milder as well, especially compared to the past several years.

According to the Short-Term Energy and Winter Fuels Outlook released earlier this month by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), average household spending on natural gas, heating oil and propane between Oct. 1, 2015, and March 31, 2016, should be 10 percent, 25 percent and 18 percent lower, respectively.

Residential electricity prices are likely to remain close to last winter's levels. In fact, the EIA said it will cost consumers about 3 percent less to heat a home with electricity this winter versus last year.

According to NOAA's weather forecast, this year's El Niño weather system will be among the strongest on record. And it predicts tht El Niño's effect on the direction of the Pacific jet stream will create cooler and wetter weather in the U.S. South, along with above-average temperatures in the West and Northern Tier.

"While temperature and precipitation impacts associated with El Niño are favored, El Niño is not the only player," Mike Halpert, the deputy director for NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, said in a press statement. "Cold-air outbreaks and snow storms will likely occur at times this winter. However, the frequency, number and intensity of these events cannot be predicted on a seasonal timescale."

NOAA expects Central and Southern Californa to see some relief from their historic drought by the end of January. But Halpert warned that one season of good precipitation isn't enough to erase four years of record dryness.

"California would need close to twice its normal rainfall to get out of drought," he added, "and that's unlikely."

Another concern from last winter should also be less of a problem in the coming season. Heating fuel inventories withered during the winter of 2014, when record-cold temperatures created a spike in both consumer demand and fuel prices. But the EIA projects that supplies of natural gas, which is used to heat over 60 million American homes, are currently 15 percent higher than a year ago.

What's more, the EIA says even if NOAA goofs and this winter ends up significantly colder than forecast, U.S. heating fuel spending should still be lower than the 2014-2015 winter season.

That's mainly thanks to a continuing slump in global oil prices, which in turn affects gasoline and heating fuel costs. "The main driver of lower retail heating oil prices is lower crude oil prices," the EIA noted in its Oct. 7 weekly petroleum report. That report also forecast the average U.S. household will spend around $1,390 for heating during the 2015-2016 winter season, down $460 compared to last winter's average expenditures.

All this is great news in places like Boston and Buffalo, New York, both among the many places that endured brutal cold temperatures and record-breaking snowfall last year.

In Western New York, some industry officials said if the weather forecast lives up to expectations, winter heating bills in the region could be the lowest in at least 21 years.

"Our customers will see substantial savings through this coming winter heating season and maybe have a little extra in their pockets come April," Karen Merkel, spokesperson for National Fuel Gas, recently told The Buffalo News.