Group protests high gas prices

CHICAGO And the energy price crunch will continue this winter as People's Gas and North Shore Gas warn customers they should prepare to pay a lot more to heat their homes. Natural gas customers can expect to pay 25-to-52-percent more on their bills in the months ahead. Combined with the ongoing increases at the gas pump, this could be a record setting winter for energy costs.

The word relief is not part of the near future. While so many consumers are changing their driving habits, they may be changing the way they cook and heat their homes. Whether it's about natural gas or the price of oil, analysts say the high costs are all about the lack of supply. What to do about it is the big question.

Honking in protest of high gas prices, it became quite noisy on a West Side corner Wednesday as members of the community group, the South Austin Coalition, passed out fliers calling for action. Filling up at the pump has now become a thing of the past.

"I can't fill it up. It costs too much. No, I just put maybe $20, $30 in at a time," said Lenore Brown.

The South Austin Coalition believes a grass roots energy plan and government price controls on oil companies are ways to get some relief.

"They're making a lot of money," said Bob VonDrasek, South Austin Coalition. "I think there's something wrong with that when everybody else is suffering. Really what you need is regulation."

But experts say price controls would mean shortages and the gas lines of the 1970s would return.

In addition, industry analyst Phil Flynn says, if U.S. oil companies are not doing well financially, we will become even more dependent on foreign oil.

"If anything, we should encourage our U.S. oil companies to be strong and making a lot of money," said Flynn, "because if we're going to meet the energy needs over the next 20 years, they better be making a lot of money or they're not going to have enough money to invest to bring that oil back home."

As the pain at the pump gets worse, so does the pain at home. Natural gas prices are at an all time high as well. People's Gas prices this year are 1.50 per therm, compared to 82 cents last year. North Shore Gas customers are paying 1.34, compared to .88 last year.

"We try to cook on the stove and barbecue or eat lunch," said Eva Yates.

Experts say it is all about supply and you can blame last winter's brutal cold.

"We used more gas this winter than in the last 10 years. So right now there's a scramble to rebuild supplies ahead of next winter," said Flynn.

Flynn says the only way to meet demand is to drill more for natural gas or import it. However, environmental laws prevent drilling in several places, including Lake Michigan.

People's Gas is warning customers now to learn how to conserve for the winter or enroll in a budget payment plan.

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