Topeka — Kansas natural gas customers should prepare for higher bills this winter, but the situation appears less dire than it did two months ago.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Thursday that national supplies of gas had improved dramatically in recent months. That had pushed prices down from near all-time highs, she said, but gas prices remained higher than they were a year ago.
She spoke during the opening of the Kansas Summit on Natural Gas, which attracted about 140 people.
"If we have a long and cold winter, people are going to be paying significantly more for natural gas than they did a year ago," Sebelius said. "My advice for people is to get ready to wear a few extra sweaters and turn the heat down a little bit."
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said he could envision gas bills increasing by about 25 percent compared with last year. That would be a significant increase, he said, but not as bad as it could have been. In the spring and early summer, the wholesale price of gas was about 20 percent higher than it is today and roughly four times the price it was five years ago.
"The sky is not falling, but there are cracks in the ceiling," said Sloan, who attended the state-sponsored summit at Washburn University.
Larissa Long -- a spokeswoman for Aquila, the natural gas company serving Lawrence -- said early projections indicated the average winter gas bill in Lawrence would rise by 12 percent, if the weather was similar to last year.
Sebelius convened the summit as part of a process to create a comprehensive energy plan for the state. One of the plan's goals is to create ideas that will make the state less susceptible to swings in energy prices, she said.
"For the sake of consumers and businesses, we have to develop strategies to conserve energy while continuing to develop our natural and renewable resources," Sebelius said. "We can't afford to sit by and allow our energy policy to be dictated by outside forces. We need to do what we can to control our own destiny."
Energy leaders worry that low-income families may be put into a financial pinch by higher natural gas costs. David Springe, consumer council for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, said he was concerned government and social service programs designed to help people with utility bills would be hard-pressed to keep up with this year's demand.
"I would love to be able to get those agencies some help, because I'm afraid they're going to be in real trouble," Springe said.
He said the agencies shouldn't count on help from the Kansas Legislature because its session doesn't start until January.
"I think there is very little that can be done for this winter," Springe said. "Even if the Legislature wanted to do something, by the time it would take to get something passed and signed it would be too late."