Utilities will have plenty of natural gas to meet consumer demand this winter, the American Gas Association said on Monday, but heating bills are still likely to be higher than last year.

"This winter's supply of natural gas is abundant," the trade group said in its winter forecast.

At a briefing for reporters, the group's officials said supplies will be up this winter because of strong domestic gas production, near record gas inventories, more liquefied gas imports and new pipelines to move the heating fuel.

"Are we challenged for this winter? Not from the standpoint of reliably supplying customer demand," said Chris McGill, managing director for policy analysis at AGA. "But we need to keep in mind that costs are higher today than when compared to history."

He pointed out that utilities acquired and put into storage some of the gas they will send to homes and businesses this winter earlier in the year, when prices were higher than at present.

Low-income families are especially vulnerable to high heating costs this winter, and state energy officials have called on the government to provide more money to help the poor pay their bills.

Mark Wolfe, who heads the association of state energy directors, said at the briefing that consumers who warm their homes with natural gas to pay on average $881 in heating fuel expenses this winter, up 6 percent or about $50 more than last winter.

The Energy Department will release on Tuesday its forecast for heating fuel costs this winter.

AGA officials said the weather will have the strongest influence on natural gas home-heating prices this winter. Government weather forecasters say temperatures this winter will be cooler than last year, but still above normal.

Fifty-two percent of all U.S. households use natural gas for heat, with the United States consuming about 23 trillion cubic feet of gas a year.