National Geographic News
A natural gas plant in Tioga, North Dakota, at moonrise.

The moon casts a glow on a natural gas plant expansion project in Tioga, North Dakota. The production boom in the remote Bakken shale isn't translating to lower winter energy prices for households in the United States or overseas.

Photograph by Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

Marianne Lavelle

National Geographic

Published October 18, 2013

Leave it to British wits to put to rest any notion that the world's winter energy woes have been eliminated by the North American natural gas boom.

They let loose Thursday, soon after Great Britain's largest energy supplier, British Gas, announced a 10 percent price hike to go into effect on the eve of the cold season. In what will go down as one of the great corporate social media faux pas, the company invited customers to dialogue using the hashtag #askBG on Twitter.

"Is it true that the water fountains at British Gas HQ are filled by collecting the icy tears of freezing children?" tweeted freelance animator Adam Proctor (@fortsunlight). "Do the @BritishGas board prefer to bathe in £20 or £50 notes?" tweeted the creative ad agency, Don't Panic London. "British Gas: Freeze pensioners, not prices," said one of the few mock ads that did not contain profanity. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Home Heating.")

Things only got worse when U.K. Energy Secretary Ed Davey chimed in that he kept his heating bills down by wearing a jumper (British slang for a pullover sweater.)

This unleashed a "#jumpergate" torrent, even though Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman tried to disassociate himself from his cabinet member's comment.

"Let them wear jumpers!" declared The Independent newspaper. "We burned our jumpers last winter," tweeted Tara Herman, an executive producer at The Guardian. "Perhaps the Tories can donate some of theirs?"

The dark humor underscored a serious reality about what the International Energy Agency just two years ago suggested might be "the golden age of gas." Unlike coal and oil, natural gas is difficult and expensive to transport. So even though hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has allowed the United States to ramp up production quickly enough to overtake Russia as the world's leading natural gas producer, it won't directly warm homes across the pond this winter. (It may do so only indirectly, by continuing to cheapen U.S. coal enough to fuel record exports, much to the detriment of European Union goals to cut carbon dioxide emissions.) (See related quiz, "What You Don't Know About Natural Gas.")

In the Shadow of Plenty

Even within the United States, where more than half of households rely on natural gas for heat, consumers will  be hard pressed this winter to find any sign of the hydraulic fracturing gas bounty on their utility bills.

Forecasters at the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) see a 13 percent increase in heating costs this season for households that use natural gas.

Offering some consolation, EIA points out that natural gas bills still will be lower than the five-year U.S. average. And homes heated by natural gas still will be significantly better off than the 6 percent of U.S. households, primarily in New England and the Middle Atlantic, that still rely on heating oil. For them, despite a slight drop in price from last year, EIA's forecast is for an average winter heating bill of $2,046, roughly double the cost of keeping warm for homes that use natural gas ($1,045.)

Several complex factors have contributed to higher natural gas prices in the United States, despite the ongoing fracking boom and high production.

Bottlenecks slow the movement of natural gas from remote fields to customers. (See related, "Space View of Natural Gas Flaring Darkened by Budget Woes.") Home heating customers aren't the only ones lining up for natural gas; both electricity generators and big industry customers are clamoring for the same fuel, and there's only so much pipeline to deliver it. EIA noted that chilly New England in particular saw "extreme price spikes" in both natural gas and electricity during the winter of 2012-13 due to pipeline constraints.

Unfortunately for the poor, higher winter energy prices hit at the same time that U.S. budget woes have sliced total funding for low-income heating assistance from $5.1 billion in 2010 to $3.3 billion in the fiscal year just ended. The number of households served declined about 19 percent, to 6.6 million, and the average benefit was cut about 20 percent, to $401.

It all comes at a time when more people are in tight financial straits due to the sluggish economy, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which advocates for heating assistance for low-income families. "These programs (heating assistance) were designed to deal with a much smaller population of people in need," he said. "We have a lot people who are out there living from paycheck to paycheck."

Out of Gas in the EU

In Europe, which is continuing to struggle with its own economic recovery, the factors affecting winter energy prices are even more complex. British Gas, like another supplier, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), which announced a winter price hike of 8.2 percent one week earlier, cited higher distribution and wholesale costs, as well as the expense of meeting government "green" energy regulations.

As its once-bounteous North Sea fields have aged, the United Kingdom's own natural gas production has fallen 60 percent over the past decade. The U.K.'s imports of natural gas from Norway via pipeline have risen significantly in recent years, but a number of outages and maintenance issues have strained these flows. Norway's production is down by about 30 percent because of technical problems at Troll, its major gas field.

In theory, European countries could tap into the natural gas is being produced in abundance in the fields of Qatar and Algeria, both of which have invested billions of dollars on facilities to super-chill the fuel into liquefied natural gas (LNG) and send it by tanker ships to the world market.

But LNG ships from the Middle East and Africa are turning their sterns to the European Union because they can gain far higher prices for the fuel by traveling to Asia and the ravenous markets of China and energy-strapped Japan.

Meanwhile, continental Europe relies heavily on Russia for natural gas, much of it delivered by pipeline through Ukraine. Analysts are debating whether a continuing dispute between the Ukraine and Russia will result in a reprise of the gas shortages and high winter prices that staggered Europe in 2009.

But regardless of the outcome of this year's Ukraine issues, EU regulators are preparing an antitrust action against Russian monopoly Gazprom, charging it has hindered the free flow of gas across the continent and imposed unfair prices.

Open Grid Europe, Germany's leading natural gas carrier, warned about possible supply disruptions across Europe this winter because many European countries were forced to delay replenishing their stores because of a long, unseasonably late cold snap last spring. "One cannot rule out the possibility of supply restrictions occurring," it said, concluding Germany and neighboring countries were most at risk. According to Gas Infrastructure Europe, Europe's storage levels are at 81 percent capacity, 10 percentage points lower than a year ago.

In the long run, the fracking boom that began in North America might spread natural gas supply and ease prices. The United States is moving forward with plans to build its own LNG terminals to export gas. (See related, "With Natural Gas Booming, a Move to Send it Overseas.") And England and other E.U. countries hope to tap into their own underground shale reserves with fracking. (See related, "U.K. Dash for Gas A Test for Global Fracking.") But both potential moves—U.S. gas exports and E.U. fracking—are steeped in political controversy, so any significant increase in supply to the global market is years away.

For this winter, expectations are now high that the four other big U.K. energy suppliers will fall in step with British Gas and SSE and raise prices. "If there is one thing history has taught us, it's that the other four will likely increase their prices by next month, as well," said Audrey Gallacher, director of energy at Consumer Futures, a U.K. consumer watchdog.

And the political fallout is likely to continue, as Britain's Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, recently promised that if his party wins the next election it would freeze energy prices for 20 months. The pledge was quickly labeled as a "con" by Cameron, who pointed out that no government leader has the power to control world gas prices. But in a country where the government tracks "excess winter mortality," and where thousands of deaths, primarily of the elderly, are attributed to the cold, the issue is an emotional one, as British Gas learned in its ill-fated Twitter chat.

How well England weathers the energy price storm will depend greatly on the weather. Long-range forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, but Britain's upcoming winter is expected to be, like last season's, "colder than average."

Get out your jumpers.

(Related Interactive: "World Electricity Mix")

Patrick J. Kiger in Washington, D.C., and Thomas K. Grose in London contributed to this report.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Billy Corners
Billy Corners

"EIA noted that chilly New England in particular saw "extreme price spikes" in both natural gas and electricity during the winter of 2012-13 due to pipeline constraints."

Is it a coincidence that the oil/gas industry was in Maine trying to pimp their pipeline the same they hike prices and blamed pipeline sizes?

Justin Case
Justin Case

Well, nobody else said it, so I will. Necessity is the mother of invention. And shivering in the cold is a great motivator. I am 100% sure that Britain will solve its problems without too much trouble. And "Keep Calm and Carry On" is probably not how it will happen. Higher energy prices are a great way to spur people to look for other solutions.

Wind and Solar are expanding very rapidly. That will not help in the short run, but what if the excess wind power were used to generate hydrogen that could be burned? What if there were some manner of THERMAL storage that might be used by local authorities? In non-urban areas, burning wood or biomass or even coal in very small low emission stoves might give some good heat. Improving insulation is a winner.

Countries which, for one reason or another, have high energy costs are going to have to make the technological innovations that resource-rich countries won't bother with. So put on your thinking caps, Brits, and join the club. Japan and Germany and even China behave as though energy is a scarce commodity still. Maybe looking to the US to solve energy problems is not going to be much help.

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

The answer to our energy problems is NOT natural gas, coal, or oil.  It is nuclear energy. HOWEVER,  to go that route will require an "Iron Fist" held over the builder of those plants to insure that every conceiveable safety measure is used.  Natural Gas is a killer, as anyone who has read the paper recently knows. Homes blow up on a regular basis. Gas lines burst and cause huge explosions. Coal pollutes the air, as well as oil.  Nuclear energy is also dangerous as those plants in Japan and Russia have shown.  Nulear energy is only a pollutent  if the plants that produce the energy are built properly and in safe areas and that those who operate them are constantly aware of what is going on.  Still nuclear energy can be more devastating that the others if allowed to get out of control. There is another solution which we suggest with tongue in cheek.  Solar power, or wind energy built to provide enough energy to operate electric thermal underwear.  We can turn off the heat and still be warm and cozy...saving our resources for our children. The Brits have the right idea in wearing a "pull-over", we are just elaborating upon it!

Robert Strahlendorf
Robert Strahlendorf

It's interesting how the authors ignored the huge amount of research out there which pertains to the high cost of environmentalism and in energy the huge cost of trying to restrict CO2. Maybe it's starting to hit home that there is great value in the use of carbon energy. 

Elizabeth Coughlin
Elizabeth Coughlin

I am a working girl. I have not had a raise in 5 (count 'em 5) years. The governor of NH wants to offer us 2 0/0. OH boy. the cost of living is up around 45 percent (in thse 5 yrs.)! I blame a lot of people for our fuel worries. I liked the comment about "Mr. Precious" .

Ron Wagner
Ron Wagner

Get fracking Brits, or stop complaining about prices and pollution. You have another four years to wait for American gas and will still be competing with Asia. 

George Russert
George Russert

"Several complex factors have contributed to higher natural gas prices in the United States, despite the ongoing fracking boom and high production."

Yeah, they are greed, greed, greed, and more greed.

I hate that natural gas ad about how wonderful natural gas is for the economy and environment. The only economy that benefits from natural gas is the natural gas industry's economy.

The days of passing savings on to consumers are long gone.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

Britain sits on billions of tons of coal reserves. Until Thatcher ruined the industry, British mining employed millions of people - either directly or in all the associated industries and occupations. Many areas of the UK are now desolate with no future for the population or their children. I know several former mining towns such as Ravensthorpe where hardly anyone has a job and almost every pub, club and store have closed. Parents and their children just hang around the streets and sit in the parks all day.

The UK should stop importing coal from Poland, Brazil, South Africa and Australia, pump out her mines and re-open her pits. Not only would that lower our fuel prices but regenerate those areas and give hope to the people.

Jonathan Eber
Jonathan Eber

Since a predominate amount of profit goes to a very small group of people at the severe expense of the livelyhood of most -in this matter,,, and since most if not all of the work/money to gain this commodity is done by public,, and the fact of 'Justice's pen is the law. When that pen rolls beyond Justice's touch, Justice has always found other means of expression',,, when is it going to become undeniable that giving a lifes work at the end of life to that same small group of people (EXTREME MEDICAL COST) makes the notion of whether a hospital bed or a jail at the end of life (you'll be taken care of in both and in both you'll never leave,,, anyway) make more sense such, 'an ounce of lead is worth all the gold in the world' a viable solution.... To those that fear this----BE WORTH MORE the WORLD than you are to Your World and you'll have little to fear. Oh-- the cournals and luitentents ( of the hierarchy) are just as culpable. Don't forget them.

christopher pflaum
christopher pflaum

New England NIMBYs have blocked pipeline construction in the region for decades. New Englanders have no one to blame but themselves for their high heating costs.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@El Gabilon I agree. Nuclear power provides 80% of France's energy and the French seem fine. 

Large-scale wind and solar energy are pipe dreams and both are dead ends. For example, the maritime world was powered by free wind energy for thousands of years - sailing ships! After centuries of development commercial wind power reached it's technological peak with the clipper ships of the 19th Century. However, they are all gone and no one today would seriously advocate scrapping fossil-fuelled vessels and returning to sail. I would love to see that - but who seriously believes sailing ships will return?

Solar powered and electric vehicles are as much a dead end as the airships were. It was great technology and surely someone could have found a way to make them super-efficient - yet no one ever did. It's the same with electric vehicles today. Who seriously can develop a wind or solar powered car or truck that would be efficient? 

Rather than wasting time and money with the dead ends of wind and solar power the West should invest in more and better nuclear power stations. They are clean, efficient and cheap.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@El Gabilon I would rather pay 10% higher prices (a whopping $100 oh no!) for NG then risk one of those monsters deciding to melt down in my region.

I can afford 100$ a year more for heat. I can't afford for my home, property and health to be incinerated by a melt down.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Robert Strahlendorf Holy face palm. Pretty sure anyone who lives in an industrialized economy knows the "value" and hydrocarbon energy. 

You remind me of the people who railed against lead free gas in the 70's. Sure restricting lead from the environment cost some money but that was more than made up for by the savings which resulted from cutting lead pollution.

Billy Corners
Billy Corners

@Ron Wagner did you even read the story? Weve had a gas boom here in the states and pricces went up.... 

And now the same energy companies that wanted us to drill to lower costs and add supplies wants to ship our energy overseas.... wth!

Minkus Johnson
Minkus Johnson

@George Russert George- have you ever stopped to think that if we did not find the huge amounts of natural gas and oil in the past few years, that the prices would be 5-10X higher now?

I will agree, that there seems to be too much collusion going on with the big energy providers, but you can thank both parties and the Mr. Precious in the White House. 

Natural gas is going to become more and more plentiful in the US and now we are the number one energy provider for the planet. Keep in mind that we now have an entire planet driving cars and heating their own homes now. That is the biggest influence on prices.

I will tell what disgusts me- Matt Damon and the leftist dribble of a movie he put out.

Why is it that every single thing the left hates can only be remedied by bashing and taxing the hell out of any private business? Which really just means our prices as consumers go up. 

Businesses do not pay taxes. They collect them from their customers and then pass them along to the government.

Brad Bradshaw
Brad Bradshaw

@Andrew Booth @El Gabilon In France, nuclear energy is responsible for approximately 75% of the energy used for producing electricity, which is huge.  It actually represents closer to 40% of the overall primary energy consumed in France.  Relative to wind, the global installed capacity of wind is going to blow past the global installed capacity of nuclear power within 2 years.  Look at Siemens and General Electric - wind is definitely not a pipe dream.  To be clear, wind has capacity factors roughly half those of nuclear, average 31.8% in the United States, versus 78% for nuclear.  So, installed capacity of wind will have to be at least double the installed capacity of nuclear to produce an equivalent amount of energy.  Check out the chart on this post: http://

Billy Corners
Billy Corners

@Minkus Johnson if a business or corporation thinks it can get away with ripping a taxpayer off and not going to jail over it they will. It goes with the cost of doing business now.

We wouldn't have laws or regulations if man was kind to man or mother earth. We have all seen good people turn bad over greed.

Justin Case
Justin Case

@Minkus Johnson 

But what if this gas boom DOESN'T last for 20 to 40 years? Will it have been good because it allowed people to consume more, or will it have been bad because it stifled conservation efforts, discouraged development of new technologies, and made it more difficult to extract other fuels from shale and oil/gas domes through enhanced recovery?

Every time someone points to a wonderful thing that free trade has provided, one could just as easily point to an aspect of it that went way way too far. Automobiles, Wall Street, alcohol, tobacco, oil....

Natural gas seems like a panacea, but we know that there is no such thing. There are definitely strings attached. People should be mindful of what they are, and shame on us for relying on people like Matt Damon, an entertainer, to do our thinking for us. As it is, the best that can be said is that natural gas might keep the US warm, but it isn't going to keep Brits from freezing. Is that such a great thing?

The human race needs to move along quickly and develop better technologies. Fracking is not going to be enough, and it might hurt in the long run. Human society as a whole is looking more and more like the Donner party, and it is late October.

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@Ron Wagner @George Russert - You can give up the promotional, social media campaign for fracking now Ron.  We all understand that your blind faith in increasing production as opposed to decreasing consumption is your idea of a viable solution - smh

Billy Corners
Billy Corners

@Ron Wagner @christopher pflaumwere he number one producer of gas now and it did nothing to gas prices.

 Local production means nothing for local prices with the way we give away our resources for pennies.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Swiftright Right @Minkus Johnson @Andrew Booth By EU law, the UK has to sell our North Sea oil and gas to the European Union at a low rate - and then buy it back at a higher rate than the Europeans pay for it! We have to buy our own oil and gas back from them! Can you believe it?

That's like the USA having to sell it's oil and gas to the OAS - and then buy it back!

Recent Energy News

See More at The Great Energy Challenge »

The Big Energy Question

Share Your Opinion »

The Great Energy Challenge

The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.

Energy News, Blog and Interactive Features »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »