The recent doubling of heating oil prices has local homeowners, energy retailers and energy-assistance programs concerned about the rising cost of fuel.
The price hike has local energy suppliers withholding pre-pay contracts in case prices drop by the fall, the start of the heating season. The increase has affected Berkshire households seeking fuel assistance money.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, the average cost of heating oil rose from $2.85/gallon to $5.89/gallon over a one-year period — a 106.7 percent increase. For those looking to lock in a price next winter, several local oil retailers tell The Eagle that costs have doubled to about $5.49/gallon compared to about $2.80 a gallon last fall.
“Our customers don’t blame us and they understand the situation, but they are very concerned,” said Claudine Prett, co-owner of Prett Oil Co. in North Adams. “Many of our customers are taking minimum deliveries right now and not filling their tanks.”
Jeff Clifford, fifth-generation owner of Clifford Oil and Propane in Lenox Dale, says he and his customers aren’t ready for a huge increase.
“We knew there would be a spike, but not the kind of spike we saw. The president warned us that prices would go up through speculation in the market,” he said, referring to President Joe Biden.
Some heating oil suppliers in Berkshire declined to comment on the price hike. Others did not respond to inquiries from The Eagle.
Biden and energy experts point to the embargo on Russian oil as one reason for the price hike, but according to Michael Ferrante, president of the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association, a trade group, a spike is already in the works.
“We live in a global economy and we had a problem before the war in Ukraine, for example the rest of the country and the world is emerging from COVID, increasing demand,” he said. “You go to bed at night and wake up the next day and the prices are still high. Shocking.”
Homeowners who qualify for and receive energy assistance are among those hardest hit by rising energy prices.
The Berkshire Community Action Council administers a federally funded low-income heating energy assistance program. Tammy Biagini, director of local LIHEAP, says of the 8,000 homes the group serves in Berkshire County, roughly 2,500 heat with oil — and more than half are senior citizens.
“My main concern is for the 1,320 seniors who freeze or blow their heat and run out of money. Many used up their LIHEAP benefits by February,” he said.
LIHEAP runs from November 1 to April 30 with a maximum benefit of $2,350 per family. Biagini says overall LIHEAP funding through BCAC this hot season is close to $9 million. On average, she could not say how much LIHEAP recipients paid beyond their benefits.
“With oil at $6.80 a gallon by the end of the program, households are having trouble making ends meet,” he said.
In addition to heating oil, LIHEAP helps homeowners heat with natural gas, propane and electricity.
“We have a lot of people who can’t keep up with their electricity bills and we’ve managed to prevent 300-400 service interruptions.”
Biagini noted that anyone who applied for fuel assistance and was denied due to lack of documentation, income or other criteria has until July 11 to appeal to BCAC if their financial situation has changed.
With the start of the new heating season three months away, many homeowners consider plans to lock in a price only if costs drop.
“I don’t feel comfortable giving people a locked-in price right now,” said Clifford Oil & Propane’s Clifford. “I can see the price going down but it’s too early based on the stock market’s speculation of future oil prices.”
Ferrante says it doesn’t make economic sense to switch heating fuel sources, as natural gas prices are also rising.
What can help homeowners, according to Ferrante, is spreading the cost of heating oil over a 12-month period.
“I spoke with one retailer that puts its customers on a budget plan, paying a fixed monthly average price based on typical usage over a 12-month period,” he said.
Ferrante said now is a good time to make sure a homeowner’s furnace is working properly.
“In addition to working with local retailers on payments, tune up your heating system or replace an old furnace with a new, more energy efficient one,” he said.