Economic storm fuels homeowners' worries

Dan McDonald

Forget the black ice, sidewalk slush, freezing temperatures and foot-deep snowfalls.

It's an impending economic storm that has Paul Mina worried about this winter.

Rising oil costs, dependence on foreign countries for petroleum, an economy in disarray, and the bitter bite of the encroaching winter may make warmth harder to come by than ever before.

Mina, executive director of Massachusetts 211, a nonprofit headquartered in Framingham, Mass., fears the dire potential of escalating heating costs this year.

Oil prices "have been on a bit of a rollercoaster," recently, said Robert Keough, spokesman for the state's executive office of energy and environmental affairs.

In early July, heating oil was around $4.71 per gallon, up nearly 50 percent from the previous year.

The latest state data indicates the average price of oil is $3.82. Last week, an informal look at rates showed a variation in prices with median costs hovering around $3.50, depending on the region. That figure is still about $1.50 more than the going rate three years ago, said Mina.

Natural gas, while cheaper than oil, may not always be priced lower. Many parts of the state, particularly rural areas do not have access to gas lines.

Difficult decisions may abound for low-income families, Mina said. Heat or food? Pay the oil bill or buy needed prescription medicine?

While aid is on the way from both the state and federal government it might not be enough.

Last week, state Democrats were in the unusual position of praising President George W. Bush for expanding the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The program helps lower-income families pay heating bills. The state will receive $163 million, about $50 million more than last year, thanks to a federal package unveiled last week. Those funds include $13 million for weatherizing homes, which would permanently reduce heating costs.

Households within 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($41,000 annual income for a family of four) qualify for such funding.

In addition, the state Department of Public Utilities announced Wednesday it approved $5.9 million to allow utility companies to expand energy efficiency programs, which could save 8,000 people $40 on monthly bills.

Whether those measures will be enough remains to be seen.

"The situation is serious; we don't know how grave it will be," said Keough.

Using more tax dollars to help curb heating bills does not strike at the root of the problem, says Richard Lawrence, a Hudson resident who serves on the U.S. Association for Study of Peak Oil.

"We can't just throw money at it," he said.

A nationwide shift in attitude regarding conservation and a broader, long-term strategy that goes beyond political posturing needs to be developed, he said.

Lawrence cringes when he hears politicians talk about alternative energy.

"It sets up unrealistic expectations," he said. "The fact is we need a decade-long crash course in alternative energy sources, energy, and conservation."

the United States is one of the few developed countries to use oil as a primary heating source; in Massachusetts, 40 percent of the households heat with oil.

"There's not a lot of incentive (to produce heating oil). They only have so much refinery space," said Mina. "We're at the mercy of whoever wants to sell to us."

Mina has heard estimates ranging between $40 million to $500 million more in federal funding would be needed to fully engage the problem.

"The bottom line is it's nowhere close to what we need," said Mina. "The real solving of the problem is to convert people from oil to another stable, lower-(cost) energy source."

One thing appears certain: New Englanders can expect to pay more this season to fight off the winter chill.

"People should be looking long-term. We all have to assume we've moved into an age of high-price fossil fuels," said Keough.

Dan McDonald can be reached at 508-626-4416 or

The MetroWest Daily News