Soaring natural-gas prices threaten to propel winter heating bills sharply higher, slow economic growth and push manufacturers overseas...

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WASHINGTON — Soaring natural-gas prices threaten to propel winter heating bills sharply higher, slow economic growth and push manufacturers overseas.

U.S. consumers could face bills averaging 48 percent higher this season than last year, according to predictions by the economic-research firm Global Insight. The escalating costs could cause Americans to cut back on dinners out, trips to the mall and spending, crimping U.S. economic growth. Businesses, squeezed by high energy costs, could limit expansion plans.

The high prices also are pumping up inflation.

Manufacturers that use huge amounts of natural gas are scouring the world for cheaper prices and considering moving operations to ease their costs. A renewed exodus — many companies have already shifted overseas — could further knock back growth in the United States and boost unemployment.

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Andrew Liveris, chief executive of Dow Chemical, told a hearing Thursday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the country is in a “natural-gas crisis.” Dow, which uses large amounts of natural gas to produce chemicals, must consider locating new plants in other parts of the world, such as China and the Middle East, because of U.S. energy costs, he said.

“How can I recommend investing here?” Liveris said.

U.S. natural-gas prices are among the highest in the world. Though the United States imports some natural gas, most is produced domestically. But supplies have failed to keep pace with demand.

Power plants have increasingly turned to natural gas for fuel over the past decade because it is cleaner-burning than coal. About 17 percent of the country’s electricity is generated by natural gas, according to government data.

Heats most homes

Natural gas accounts for about 63 percent of energy consumed in U.S. households and heats 55 percent of the country’s homes.

U.S. natural-gas prices have been edging higher for years and shot up sharply in recent weeks because of hurricanes Rita and Katrina, which damaged production in the Gulf of Mexico along with onshore processing facilities.

Imports are not able to make up for the lost supplies — as they have for oil and gasoline — because not enough liquefied natural gas is available. Too few ships and terminals exist to handle a significant increase in imports. Domestic production, which has been flat in recent years, cannot be quickly increased without significantly more drilling, analysts said.

“There is justification for concern about natural-gas prices at these levels,” said Jason Schenker, an economist with Wachovia in Charlotte, N.C. “Prices now are essentially twice what they were last winter. That’s likely to squeeze consumers.”

The cost to heat homes with natural gas could increase about $500 this winter compared with last year, according to Global Insight.

The price of natural gas is up 90 percent from a year ago. Analysts expect prices to fall somewhat after hurricane-related repairs are completed in the Gulf.

Prices in the largest producing countries — such as Algeria, Qatar and Nigeria — are sharply lower than those in the United States, analysts said. In some European countries, natural gas sells for about half the U.S. price.

Unlike crude oil, whose price is set on a world market, natural-gas prices are set in local markets. In countries where supplies are abundant, prices tend to be lower.

Rising prices are generating concern on Capitol Hill and are increasing pressure on lawmakers to open drilling areas that are now off-limits. A measure approved by the House Resources Committee last week would allow drilling for natural gas offshore on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Lawmakers who support the measure said momentum is building after years of failed attempts. “I have a lot of members saying … ‘I’m seriously thinking of switching to your side,’ ” said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa.

The National Association of Manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, have been pushing for more domestic production. Businesses small and large have been making their case to members of Congress that something needs to be done about natural-gas prices.

Conservation urged

Environmentalists are seizing on higher prices as evidence of a need for conservation. They are calling for more strict requirements for appliances that use natural gas and for housing insulation. They also want tax breaks to encourage consumers to buy more efficient appliances.

“We just don’t have enough natural gas out there to meet our long-term needs,” said Karen Wayland, the Washington, D.C.-based legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “The only answer, especially in the short term, is energy efficiency.”

Chemical-industry officials are warning that more plants will shut operation in the United States and relocate.

“They’re saying, ‘OK, we have a budget of a billion dollars we’re going to invest in production. Where’s the best place to do it?’ ” said Owen Kean, senior policy adviser for the chemistry council.

The United States has five terminals where liquefied natural gas can be imported, and a number of additional facilities have been proposed or approved. A number of major projects around the world are under way that will produce liquefied natural gas. Analysts said the country will become more reliant on imports, which could eventually help to moderate prices.