JAY, Maine (AP) – Across the United States, families face winter with dread as energy costs rise and fuel supplies tighten.
The Department of Energy is predicting steep increases in home heating prices compared to last winter, and some are worried whether heating assistance programs will be able to make up the difference for struggling families. The situation is even more bleak in Europewith Russia’s continued curbs on natural gas 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 crept up. He filled a container with heating oil as he could afford it, usually on paydays, and used a heating assistance program to top up his 275-gallon oil tank with the arrival of colder weather.
His family is trying to avoid being forced into a difficult decision – choosing between food or heating their home.
“It’s a tough one,” he said. “What will you choose for food, or what amount of fuel oil will you choose to keep warm?”
A number of factors are converging to create a bleak situation: global energy consumption has increased since the start of the pandemic, and supply barely kept pace until the war in Ukraine reduced supplies further.
The National Energy Assistance Directors Association says energy costs will be the highest in more than a decade this winter.
The Department of Energy projects that heating bills will rise 28% this winter for those who rely on natural gas, which is used by nearly half of American households for heat. Fuel oil is expected to be 27% higher and electricity 10% higher, the agency said.
That comes on the heels of inflation rates accelerating last month, when consumer prices rose 6.6%the fastest such pace in four decades.
The pain will be especially acute in New England, which relies heavily on heating oil to keep homes warm. It is expected to cost more than $2,300 to heat a typical home with heating oil this winter, the energy department said.
Across the country, some utilities are calling for a moratorium on winter shutdowns, and members of Congress have already added $1 billion in heating subsidies. But there will be fewer federal dollars than last year, when pandemic aid poured in.
In Jay, where Raymo lives with his partner, Lucinda Tyler, and his 8-year-old son, residents were already preparing for the worst before the local paper mill announced it would close, putting more than 200 people out of work. It has the potential to wreak havoc on the city’s budget and cause higher property taxes that will further eat into residents’ budgets.
Both Raymo and Tyler work full-time jobs. He works as many as 70 or 80 hours a week in an orthopedic office, and she works from home in shareholder services for a financial firm. They don’t qualify for much help, even as they scrape by to keep up with repairs, buy gas and put food on the table — and heat their 100-year-old home in a state known for bitterly cold weather.
“We work significant hours, but it seems like it’s not enough,” said Tyler, who wept with relief when she found out 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 aid available for the start of the winter season.
The third-warmest summer on record has already strained LIHEAP funding, “so I’m glad we were able to secure these new resources before the cold of winter sets in,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.
But that level represents an overall reduction from last year, when federal pandemic aid pushed the total energy aid package to over $8 billion.
Some seek help who have never done it before. In Auburn, Maine, 72-year-old Mario Zullo said he worked his whole life and never asked for help until last year, when he received heat aid last year. The program helped upgrade his warm-up.
“It came to us at a time when we needed it the most,” Zullo said.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of NEADA, said he fears the federally funded program won’t be enough because of high energy costs and continued volatility in energy markets. It can be even worse if the winter is particularly cold, he said.
“The crisis is coming,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and factors at play that could drive these prices higher.”
In Maine, the state has the nation’s oldest population and is the most dependent on heating oil, creating a double whammy.
“People are scared. They’re worried. They’re frustrated,” said Lisa McGee, who coordinates the heat assistance program for Community Concepts Inc. in Lewiston, Maine. “There’s more anxiety this year.”
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