Northern Ireland gas consumers should expect a considerable hike in their bills from next month, the Utility Regulator warned yesterday.
The regulator told the Assembly's enterprise committee that prices would become closer to those paid in the rest of the UK by April.
The average bill for gas customers in Britain and Ireland is currently around 18% more expensive than an average Northern Ireland gas bill.
The regulator said “increases were inevitable”.
Several factors were blamed for the hike including a rising global market, unrest in the Middle East and the extra gas use during the pre-Christmas cold weather.
A Phoenix Supply spokesman confirmed any increase would be added in April.
The spokesman said: “We can confirm that we are currently engaged in a tariff consultation process with the Utility Regulator, the Consumer Council and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
“We cannot speculate as to the outcome of this process. However, it is expected that any change in tariff will not be implemented until April 2011.” Gas supplier Firmus said its prices will not change until September.
Enterprise committee chairman Alban Maginness said the announcement was “inevitable”.
He said: “It is a very volatile world market in relation to all sorts of fuels including natural gas. Therefore a price increase seems inevitable. One would hope that this will be minimised by the Utility Regulator.”
Committee member Jennifer McCann said: “This is of great concern because families and businesses are already finding themselves in financial difficulties and this is only set to get worse due to cuts to departmental budgets.
“There are higher levels of fuel poverty here and it is important that people are protected.”
The Consumer Council yesterday urged the Government to consider the introduction of a fuel price stabiliser in Northern Ireland now that a litre of diesel has hit an average of £1.33 across the region.