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More people requesting heating assistance

Recent predictions that the prices of home heating oil, propane and natural gas will drop or remain about the same this winter haven't stopped families in need from rushing for home heating assistance, state officials said.

As of Monday, 100,000 Minnesota households had applied for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, compared with 125,000 households that were helped during all of last winter, said Bill Walsh, spokesman for the state Department of Commerce, which administers the program.

"So people are signing up early," Walsh said. "There is a great need out there, and fortunately we've got more money to meet that need."

Minnesota received $162 million this year for the program, about double its usual allocation, Walsh said.

North Dakota received a record $38.2 million in state and tribal LIHEAP aid, compared with

$20.5 million last year, said Heather Steffl, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.

The funding increases are part of a $5 billion package Congress passed to help those struggling with energy prices and the lagging economy.

North Dakota approved 7,966 households for LIHEAP aid as of Wednesday, a 2.3 percent jump over the same time last year, Steffl said.

The higher demand for help in both states comes as the U.S. Energy Information Administration last week released heating cost projections for the winter period of Oct. 1 to March 31.

In the Midwest, the price of heating oil is projected to be 17.4 percent lower than last winter, and the price of propane is projected to drop by 9 percent. Natural gas is projected to increase by 1.8 percent, while electricity is projected to jump by 7.3 percent.

Most households in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area are heated with electricity or natural gas. The 2000 census found 25,850 homes used electricity and 26,284 used natural gas in Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo and Dilworth. About 1,600 homes used fuel oil, while 734 used propane.

Two-thirds of Minnesota households use natural gas, although the percentage of those who use home heating oil and propane is higher in greater Minnesota, Walsh said. Those people aren't eligible for LIHEAP, which reimburses the utility on behalf of the customer, he said.

However, oil and propane customers can take advantage of Minnesota's weatherization program, which provides grants for new windows, energy audits and replacing furnaces, he said. Federal funding for that program also almost doubled this year.

Dave Olson, co-owner of Lileks Oil Co. in West Fargo, said he's been taking a lot of calls from customers checking around for oil prices.

"Seems a lot more this year than in years past," he said.

The fuel oil price locally has dropped about $1.50 per gallon since late summer, to around $2.30 per gallon now, he said.

Home heating oil prices don't drop as quickly as gasoline prices because oil distributors don't get rid of their inventory as quickly, he said.

Five years ago, a daily price fluctuation of a couple cents was a big deal, but now it can change 5 to 10 cents a gallon in a day, he said.

"(It's) totally way more volatile than it used to be," he said. "And I guess fortunately right now the volatility is on the downswing. Hopefully that will continue."

LIHEAP grants, which averaged $500 per recipient in Minnesota last year, are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, Walsh said.

A list of heating assistance providers in Minnesota is at

Information on North Dakota's program is available at