It may still be summer, but winter is already casting a
troubling shadow over New England.
The anticipation of thermometers plunging below freezing, of
blowing snow and frigid winds, is literally keeping Charles Taylor awake at night.
"I keep thinking about how much oil is going to be," said
the 75-year-old Springfield man who owns a home with his wife Bonnie on Norfolk Street.
"I could barely pay for my oil last year and they keep
saying it is going to be high this year," he said. "Sometimes I only had $75 left after I paid my bills. We just don't have the
money to survive. But we have to have heat."
Bitterly cold weather last January pushed heating oil prices
to their historic high, $2 a gallon, and caused oil shortages in some areas. And there is fear that the same events may
repeat this winter.
Even though many furnaces in Western Massachusetts have not
fired up once this season, heating oil prices are already rising sharply. The average price for fuel oil in Greater
Springfield jumped nearly 25 cents per gallon in the last month and is now $1.36 per gallon. A year earlier,
it was just about 70 cents per gallon. And the news may be no better this heating
season for natural gas and electricity prices.
But in contrast to last winter, when the sudden rise in
heating oil prices caught most people flat-footed, this time many are determined to be prepared. Heating oil dealers are
stocking up, many of their customers have bought fixed-price contracts and filled their tanks early,
homeowners are insulating houses, and some are turning to wood fuel as an
However, the higher heating prices have narrowed the options
for many on fixed or inadequate incomes.
"The elderly can have some tough choices to make. Do I nudge
the thermostat up or get my prescription renewed or do I buy something nutritious to eat?" said Patricia A.
Nelligan, director of the fuel assistance program for the New England Farm Workers Council.
Historically, the option of last resort for the poor has
been fuel assistance programs. However, this year, it is also being offered -- and encouraged -- as a choice for the middle
class, said Meredith A. Lindquist, who directs the fuel assistance program for the
A household of four can have a gross income of up to $34,100
and be eligible for benefits, and a household of six can earn up to $45,700 and be eligible this year, she said.
While basic benefits range from about $125 to $460 for the
season, last winter, when emergency federal funds were added to the benefits, some in Western Massachusetts received
more than $1,000 to put toward their heating bills.
"In the past, basically you had to be poor. What Congress is
saying is that it is not just the poor who need help. People who are struggling in the middle class also need it," Lindquist
"Right now, this program is open to people who are the
working class. Many people in the retail service industry earn within this range, but they feel because they work that they
wouldn't be eligible. But if they have a household of two or three people, they might be," she said.
Nelligan, who is getting twice as many calls a day now than
she did a year ago for applications, said fuel assistance "is not a welfare program."
"It's a program that should be used by anyone who is eligible, and I especially encourage the
elderly to call us. It really is a painless process to apply," she said.
If fuel aid workers' pleas to the elderly are especially
urgent this winter, there's a reason.
During the coldest stretch of weather last January, when
temperatures fell to the single digits for seven consecutive days, Springfield police discovered the lifeless body of an
elderly Amherst Street man who apparently froze to death in his unheated home. He was found bundled in his
bed with his furnace off.
While New England is known for tough winters, it has not
been known for them lately. Last winter, from Jan. 14 to Jan. 30 in Springfield, the temperature fell to 10 degrees or below
on 12 of 17 days. By contrast, during the entire winter of 1998-1999 in Springfield, the
temperature reached as low as 10 degrees just seven times. And in the winter of 1997-1998, it
reached that level just twice.
Oil analysts say that if we have a repeat of either of those
two warmer winters, heating oil prices could decline sharply and there may actually be a glut of oil as the season ends.
While many people are praying for the best, they are planning for the worst when it comes to
this winter's weather.
"We're starting to see insulation products selling as well
as a variety of things like window kits, items to seal small holes and cracks around windows and doors," said Mark
Conz, manager of Serv-U True Value Homecenter in Northampton.
"I only anticipate it growing once we get the first cold
snap. That seems to wake people up to reality. They will realize they don't have much time left," he said.
Kenneth Byrne, a graduate student at University of Massachusetts, bought a home in North
Hadley earlier this summer. And the prospect of a cold winter has been on his mind.
"It's an old furnace and an old hot water heater, so it's
definitely an issue. Now I'm looking into how I can do insulation and fuel assistance. A few hundred dollars of
insulation should pay for itself in a couple of years."
He even has gone online to look for information on alternative heating systems, such as those
that extract heat from the ground in winter.
Leonard R. Bruso, owner of Bay State Fuel Oil Inc. of West
Springfield and a past president of the Western Massachusetts Fuel Dealers Association, said 70 percent of his regular
customers bought fixed-price contracts earlier this year for as little as 99 cents per gallon.
That's up from 60 percent last year, he said.
Such contracts meant he could buy his supplies early in the
season at a lower price. "It's great for me and great for my customers," he said.
But he said that as oil prices have risen through the late
summer, so have the prices of any fixed-price contracts that are still available with the region's dealers. With so much
uncertainty in supply and price as the winter approaches, most dealers, including Bruso, are no longer
offering them because the guaranteed supplies they bought from their wholesale
dealers have run out.
Even though fixed-price contracts offer oil prices that will
probably be lower than they are later in the season, not everyone can afford them. Michael Lazzara, a Westfield
homeowner, was recently told by his dealer he could lock in his oil price for the season at $1.18. But the father
of two couldn't afford the deal because the rate required advance payments.
"If we are going to have to pay through the nose, we are
going to have to pay through the nose. There is not much you can do about it. You have to pay the bills," he said.
Those who heat with natural gas -- nearly half the residents
of the state -- are also fearing utility bill shock. Wholesale natural gas prices have doubled since the beginning of the
year. And that fuel cost accounts for as much as half a customer's bill.
Bay State Gas Co. is expected to file for an increase in its
fuel charge in the next two weeks with state regulators, as are nearly all gas utilities in the state. While oil prices rise
and fall according to markets, natural gas prices are regulated by the state, with adjustments made
quarterly based on the changing cost for the utility to purchase gas. Any new increase
to that fuel charge would take effect Nov. 1.
In its latest forecast of fuel prices, issued Sept. 6, the
U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted that for residential customers, natural gas bills will be 27 percent
higher nationwide from October to March this heating season compared to last season.
For residential customers heating with oil, the agency
predicted about a 30 percent increase in costs compared to last heating season, assuming normal winter weather.
If temperatures fall dramatically, though, as they did last
January, heating oil prices will soar, "unless inventories (of heating oil) are built to sufficient levels by the end of the
year," the report warned.
In August, the inventories of fuel oil were 45 percent to 50
percent lower than they were a year ago.
There has been an ongoing debate about which fuel is cheaper
to heat with -- gas or oil. Right now, the advantage appears to be with gas. Customers of Bay State Gas are paying the
equivalent of heating oil prices of about $1.20 per gallon. But Bay State's fuel charge will rise in
However, the two fuels have jockeyed for cost superiority
over the years. From 1995 to late 1996, gas was generally cheaper, but from late 1997 to mid-1999, oil was, according to
the U.S. Department of Energy.
Those who heat with gas do have one other advantage, though.
From Nov. 15 to March 15, gas companies cannot shut off service to customers who have filed a hardship notice with them.
However, oil dealers can refuse to deliver to someone who cannot pay for the fuel.
Not unexpectedly, sales of firewood are up this season, as
are the prices for it.
Lance L. Lashway, the owner of Lashway Firewood in Williamsburg, said a cord of wood will
cost about $10 more this year than last year, reflecting the higher cost for gasoline to
power equipment to cut the trees, transport them to the mill and cut the logs into firewood.
A cord of seasoned firewood -- cut, split and delivered
-- can be purchased for $120 to $140 in most of Western Massachusetts. However, they price is expected to rise through
the season, especially if cold weather sets in.
Angie Senosk, of Westview Farm in Monson, said they can
barely keep up with requests for firewood, which are the highest she's seen in her four years there. "We're getting 30
phone calls a day."
At Tetreault & Son Forest Management, which also sells
firewood, more people are buying wood and more are buying early, said spokeswoman Chris Kelley.
Sales of wood stoves are also heating up. "Our season
usually doesn't begin until September or October and it started in July this year," said Pamela S. Bergstrom of Fireside Design
in West Springfield, where sales of wood stoves, which may cost up to $1,500 to $1,800, are up about