The average price of home heating oil has soared to above £500 for 900 litres — as the big freeze continues to grip Northern Ireland.
As arctic temperatures continue to cause havoc, householders are now faced with paying spiralling prices just to keep their homes warm.
Oil prices hit a two-year high at the beginning of December, with the Belfast Telegraph predicting they would break through the £500 barrier for a full tank before the end of the month.
And now that they have — mirroring what happened during the home heating oil shortage of 2008 — and there are fears that costs will spiral out of control.
“The price of heating oil has reached £500 for 900 litres and it is still rising,” said an industry expert.
Concerns have also been raised about the ability of oil distributers to reach more remote areas of Northern Ireland
While prices here are rising they are still not as high as other parts of the United Kingdom. Heating oil currently costs around 56p a litre here, but the average in the rest of the UK is around 76p, with prices varying wildly.
But Northern Ireland has a much higher dependence on oil, which heats around 70% of homes in the province.
Meanwhile thousands of people across Northern Ireland have been left without heat or running water, with pipes frozen during the extreme cold spell.
Some plumbers have reported taking hundreds of calls a day.
David Maine told UTV: “We've had in and around 200 telephone calls today, of which we've managed to get through about 100 of them.
“It's all sorts of freezing pipes, no water, boilers not working.”
The Housing Executive is asking its tenants to only report emergency repairs over the holiday period due to the unprecedented numbers of appeals for help with heating problems and frozen pipes.
Defending the price of home heating oil here, Northern Ireland Oil Federation spokesman David Blevings said local oil consumers are still benefiting from competitive oil prices.
“Wholesale costs are increasing due to the global demand for oil and other energy products as the extreme cold weather continues,” he said.
“Despite these rises, Northern Ireland consumers continue to buy their home heating oil below the annual UK average cost for kerosene.”
Severe weather conditions in some parts of the province have been making it impossible to fulfil many orders.
One supplier said: “Last week only 50% of deliveries were possible, but the situation is much better now. Although we’re having some problems with individual streets, at least it’s not so much whole areas any longer.”
Mr Blevings confirmed that distributors are still facing severe driving conditions and are only making deliveries where safe to do so.
He added: “The good news for consumers is that stocks of heating oil in the local terminals are high.”
A straw poll of oil distributors has revealed that a number of local suppliers have increased their prices by as much as 13.5% since December 1.
Of those still charging less than £500, Oil Direct’s tariff was £495 for 900 litres on Tuesday compared to £436 four weeks ago, representing a hike of £59.
Similarly, prices at Swift Fuels were sitting at £499, compared to £444, which equates to £55, or 12% increase.
A spokesman for the price comparison website Cheapestoil.co.uk said: “Competition is great and delivery times are not unexpected for this time of year, but prices are still rising.
“Whilst there have been calls for regulation in Northern Ireland after prices increased by 10%, the rest of the UK has experienced a 70% hike in just a few months.
“Oil distributors in Northern Ireland have claimed that demand is two to three times the seasonal average alongside treacherous conditions which are hampering delivery to rural areas.”
The Office of Fair Trading has said that it is keeping an eye on home heating oil prices across the UK.