NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said consumers can expect to see at least six months of high gasoline and heating fuel prices until energy production recovers from hurricane damage.
Department of Energy spokesman Craig Stevens confirmed on Monday Bodman's prediction that it will take at least six months before prices return to pre-Katrina levels.
The statements were first published in a report in USA Today Monday.
"We're going to go through a very challenging time the next six months, is my guess," Bodman told the newspaper. "Both in terms of gasoline availability and (prices of) natural gas and heating oil, we're going to have some problems."
Bodman warned he didn't yet know the extent of damage done by Hurricane Rita to offshore oil and natural gas platforms as well as Gulf Coast refineries and pipelines, telling the paper it would take two to three more weeks to complete an assessment. But he suggested there could be shortages depending on the extent of damage.
"Most of us have viewed energy availability as a kind of right of citizenship," he said, adding that Americans might have rethink that attitude.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service reported Friday that only 2 percent of offshore oil production in the Gulf was back in service, and only 21 percent of natural gas production is again operating. In addition, roughly 20 percent of U.S. refining capacity remains shut due to damage from either Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29 or Hurricane Rita, which hit Sept. 24.
While gasoline imports have helped bring pump prices back below $3 a gallon on average nationally, importing heating oil and natural gas is more difficult. Experts warn that there will be a sticker shock for heating bills this winter, with prices rising by about a third for those using heating oil and by two-thirds for the majority of Americans who use natural gas to heat their homes.
Bodman also unveiled a national energy conservation plan Monday that among other steps, asks Americans to turn off lights, change thermostat settings, drive slower and insulate homes.
For more news on this year's oil crunch, click here.