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Heating oil spike marks costly end to winter in New England

One energy expert encouraged New Englanders to purchase only what’s needed to get through the spring.
Credit: AP
Daniel DiDonato, a deliveryman for Heatable, brings heating oil to a home in Lewiston, Maine, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. The amount of aid available to residents of cold weather states for heating costs has increased, but it's unlikely to plug the gap caused by higher energy costs. President Joe Biden's push for more could fall prey to partisan politics. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

PORTLAND, Maine — With heating oil prices topping $5 per gallon, an all-time record in New England, people who depend on the energy source to stay warm are getting walloped in the final weeks of winter.

In the Northeast, a snowstorm this weekend is expected to bring more than a foot of snow to parts of the region, proving that the cold weather isn't ready to relinquish its grip.

One energy expert encouraged New Englanders to purchase only what's needed until warmer weather arrives.

“There’s no need to fill up your tank. The best advice is to buy just what you need because prices will be coming down. This is a spike, and prices will be coming down,” Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association said. 

Heating oil prices generally track with gasoline prices, which have been growing since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said New Englanders were paying $2.81 per gallon for heating oil a year ago.

As of Monday, the regional average was $4.96, according to the agency, and the price inched upward in most places. A Massachusetts survey put the average at $5.02, with prices as high as $6. Those prices, which aren't adjusted for inflation, remain volatile.

It was so bad that thieves emptied a church's oil tank in Maine.

Steven Allman, pastor of the Leeds Community Church said between 150 and 175 gallons of oil was stolen. That pilfered oil had a value of between $750 and $875 based on price of $5 per gallon.

“We are very saddened and our prayers go out to those so desperate that they had to resort to draining our outside fuel tank. If only they would have come to us for their needs,” the church said.

In places like Burlington, Vermont, the growing cost of fuel is coupled with the shortage of affordable housing.

“The higher cost of fuel to get us through this winter, and exactly what this really means over the next two to three to four months or beyond, is one of the most challenging times” facing Vermonters, according to Travis Poulin, the director of Chittenden Community Action.

There's a disproportionate impact in the Northeast, where residents are more dependent on oil for a heating source. The state that's most heavily reliant on heating oil is Maine, where it heats 60 percent of homes.

But the higher prices are mitigated by the fact that many customers lock into fixed-rate plans at the start of the season.

Another positive note was that the Biden administration provided $4.5 billion in energy assistance through stimulus funding on top of $3.8 billion through the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, Wolfe said.

Some of that money is still being distributed, potentially helping people make late-season energy purchases, he said.

President Joe Biden acknowledged that residents are going to pay a price for his decision to ban oil imports from Russia — a consequence of the Russia-Ukraine war.

He warned that Americans will see oil and gasoline prices rise further, saying “defending freedom is going to cost.”

Charlie Summers from the Maine Energy Marketers Association said many consumers will likely have some breathing room because the spike has come at the tail end of the heating season.

But he said dealers are going to face difficulties because they soon have to begin locking into contracts for next winter.

Associated Press writer Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed to this report.

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