BP has already announced stunning annual profits of £9 billion ($16.93bn). In the 10 seconds it took you to read the start of this article, BP would have made £2854 ($5369) profit.

But as heating costs soar, the end result for cold-climate pensioners is also nothing if not predictable: increased numbers of death.

This week the British government announced plans to help pensioners switch their energy providers to save money. "Why pay more?" asked a smiling UK Trade and Industry Minister Patricia Hewitt launching the advertising campaign.

After all, gas and electricity bills in the UK have risen on average by around 16% in 2004.

Rising prices

The British government hopes that by switching energy providers, the poor and the old can save enough money to counter the rising prices.

What's bonanza for oil majors
is 'fuel poverty' for pensioners

Yet the reality of this situation in Britain is one that will be echoed everywhere around the globe. At least by those countries with cold winter climates.

In the UK, up to 52,000 pensioners die during a cold winter. They are classified as "excess deaths".

In 2003/04's mild winter the figures given by the UK's National Office of Statistics was 23,500, 90% of whom were over the age of 65.

So what does a 16% rise in fuel bills mean? Does it mean a 16% rise in pensioner deaths? That would equate to 3760 extra deceased people of whom 3384 would be pensioners.

To give the extra dead some meaning, 3384 is around the same number who died in the British armed conflict in Ireland over the past 35 years. It is around three times the number of US soldiers who have died in Iraq since the invasion.

Fuel poverty

Of course those figures vary with region. For example 50% of Northern Ireland's pensioners live in a "fuel poor" state.

"Why are governments not insisting that all houses are built to the highest possible energy-efficient specifications?"

Susan Roaf,
Professor of Architecture,
Oxford Brookes University

In the whole of the UK, eight million homes are also "fuel poor", which equates to around 15 million people or one quarter of the total UK population.

With the effects of high oil prices yet to knock through into the developed economies, this winter could be the first of many. Fuel poverty for the poor and the pensioner could be a problem the world will see balloon over the next decade and beyond.

Colin Campbell of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) is critical of measures he describes as "scratching around trying to find pensioners a cheap deal".

"Energy poverty should be something that a country addresses at a national level," he said, speaking to Aljazeera.

Upside down

According to Cambell, "If pensioners need extra money to pay for fuel then they should be given it, otherwise, well, its absolutely awful. Trying to use the market to do this is just completely upside down."

Bad news from such places as
Russia has rattled the market

Indeed, he thinks that "free-market" economics have helped create the energy shocks the world is experiencing at the moment.

"One can clearly see that the free market, which politicians say is the supreme arbiter of everything, can't deal with the situation. You can see this clearly as so many countries, like Britain and Ireland, have what they call a regulator," Cambell said.

"They have a regulator to control the marketplace. That means that the open market is not good enough on its own. In fact subcontracting energy needs to private companies is a mistake in the first place. It's a very odd way to start."

Unpleasant irony

As Campbell sees it, there is a deep and unpleasant irony in this particular political campaign.

"Energy poverty should be something that a country addresses at
a national level"

Colin Campbell,
Association for the Study of
Peak Oil

"Well, although the market can't do it on its own, politicians turn to the market to provide a solution for pensioners. It really is horrible."

Susan Roaf is professor of architecture at Oxford Brookes University and author of a forthcoming book, Adapting Buildings, on the effects of oil scarcity and climate change on the housing stock. She also sees campaigns such as these as being generally short-sighted.

"These announcements are just fiddling while Rome burns," Roaf said. "Earlier this year there were already over a million people who had difficulties paying their gas bills.

This was before the latest price hike. What is switching your provider going to do when pensioners get more price increases next year? Or the year after?"

Restructuring needed 

Instability in Iraq has been a big
factor behind current high prices

Roaf continued: "Why are governments not insisting that all houses are built to the highest possible energy-efficient specifications?

"Without it, there will be an inevitable rise of those in fuel poverty year on year. What is needed is not new campaigns but wholesale restructuring of the energy industry."

Without significant government investment over the next decade, she sees difficulties ahead for those close to fuel poverty.

"One of the fundamental problems of the UK energy industry is that it has been privatised. This leads to no spare capacity during cold winters, which in turn hurts those who are the most vulnerable, especially the old," Roaf said.

She added: "When you contrast the investment needed to provide warm homes for the vulnerable with the recently announced £60 billion ($113bn) overspend on British military hardware, you see the problem in a different light."