Heating worries grow amid rising costs, uncertainty

JAY, Maine (AP) – Across the country, families are dreading winter as energy costs rise and fuel supplies dwindle.

The Department of Energy is predicting a sharp increase in home heating prices from last winter, and some worry whether heating assistance programs will be able to make up the difference for struggling families. The situation is even bleaker in Europe with Russia’s continued natural gas cuts pushing up prices and causing painful shortages.

In Maine, Aaron Raymo saw the writing on the wall and began stocking up on heating oil in 5-gallon increments over the summer as costs rose. He filled the container with as much heating oil as he could afford, usually on paydays, and used the heating assistance program to top off his 275-gallon oil tank as colder weather arrived.

His family is trying to avoid being forced into a difficult decision – choosing between food and home heating.

“It’s hard,” he said. “What will you choose for food or how much heating oil will you choose to stay warm?”

A number of factors are converging to create a bleak situation: global energy consumption has rebounded since the start of the pandemic, and supply was barely keeping up before the war in Ukraine further reduced supplies.

The National Association of Energy Assistance Directors says energy costs this winter will be the highest in more than a decade.

The Energy Department predicts heating bills will jump 28 percent this winter for those who rely on natural gas, which is used by nearly half of American households for heating. It is planned that heating oil will be 27 percent more, and electricity 10 percent, the agency announced.

That’s compared to inflation rates that accelerated last month with consumer prices rising 6.6%, the fastest pace in four decades.

The pain will be especially acute in New England, which relies heavily on heating oil to heat homes. It is projected to cost more than $2,300 to heat a typical home with heating oil this winter, the Energy Department said.

Across the country, some are calling on utilities to impose a moratorium on winter shutdowns, and members of Congress have already added $1 billion in heating aid. But there will be fewer federal dollars than last year when pandemic relief came in.

In Jay, where Raymo lives with his partner Lucinda Tyler and 8-year-old son, residents were already preparing for the worst before a local paper mill announced it would close, putting more than 200 people out of work. That has the potential to wreak havoc on the city budget and trigger higher property taxes that will further eat into residents’ budgets.

Both Raymo and Tyler work full time. He works as many as 70 or 80 hours a week in an orthopedic practice, and she works from home in shareholder services for a financial services company. They don’t qualify for much aid even though they’re hustling to keep up with repairs, buy gas and put food on the table — and keep their 100-year-old home warm in a state known for bitterly cold weather.

“We work a lot of hours, but it just doesn’t seem like enough,” said Tyler, who wept with relief when she learned they qualified for even a modest amount of heating assistance.

Last month, Congress added $1 billion in funding to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, bringing the total to at least $4.8 billion and making additional heating assistance available for the start of the winter season.

The third-hottest summer on record was already putting a strain on LIHEAP funding, “so I’m glad we were able to secure these new resources before the cold of winter hits,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

But that level represents an overall decrease from last year, when federal pandemic relief pushed the total energy aid package past $8 billion.

Some seek help who have never done so before. In Auburn, Maine, 72-year-old Mario Zullo said he’s worked his whole life and never asked for help until last year when he got help for heating last year. The program helped him to improve the heating.

“He came to us when we needed him the most,” Zullo said.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of NEADA, said he fears the federally funded program will not be enough because of the high cost of energy and continued volatility in energy markets. It could be even worse if the winter is particularly cold, he said.

“The crisis is coming,” he said. “There are a lot of uncertainties and factors that could push these prices higher.”

In Maine, the state has the oldest population in the country and is the most reliant on heating oil, creating a double whammy.

“People are scared. They are worried. They’re frustrated,” said Lisa McGee, who coordinates the heating assistance program for Community Concepts Inc. in Lewiston, Maine. “There’s more anxiety this year.”


Follow David Sharp on Twitter @David_Sharp_AP

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