Heating bills on the rise

Efforts under way to cut costs

By Sky Barsch
Observer correspondent

When it comes to heating prices, there’s good news and bad news.

The bad news first: if oil prices continue on their upward trend, fuel oil could cost $3 per gallon this season. The price of natural gas, propane and electricity are predicted to rise sharply as well, according to a recent report from The Associated Press, leaving many to struggle to heat their homes.

The good news? A bill being introduced by Rep. Peter Welch aims to toughen up oversight on the so-called dark markets, where oil futures are being traded and the cost is spiraling upward. The Vermont Fuel Dealers Association is lobbying for the bill’s passage.

Matt Cota, executive director of the Fuel Dealers Association, said the general trend in heating costs is upward. But a few factors could reverse that trend, he said. A warm winter could slow down demand. Oil prices could reach $100 a barrel, reaching a peak price, and prices will begin to fall. Proposed legislation could put more oversight on trading oil commodities, closing the so-called Enron loop that eased regulation, Cota said.

Cota said his organization and others that look out for the interests of small fuel dealers have been trying to get the law changed for five years. Only since the Democrats have had control of the house has the matter been taken seriously, he said.

Susan Lamb, finance director for the town of Williston said some people in town struggle to pay their heating bills. One extended illness or job loss and anyone could have trouble paying their bills.

“Some people don’t have any savings in place to fall back on,” Lamb said.

Williston has a small amount of money that is available as a last resort for very dire circumstances, she said. The town supports various social programs through tax dollars.

Area residents have access to some assistance programs to pay for heat. The following is a list of some of those resources:

The Patch Chit Program: A statewide resource for those in dire need of heating assistance, this Vermont Fuel Dealers Association-run program creates and places pledges, or “chits,” usually in 100-gallon fuel increments, in a pool for the use of the Department of Social Welfare’s Emergency Fuel Program, and other similarly concerned programs. More info is online at www.vermontfuel.com/Vermont_Fuel_Dealers_Association/Fuel_Assistance.html.

Vermont Fuel Assistance Program: This year, Vermont will receive $2.5 million through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program dollars. To apply for Fuel Assistance one must fill out a Fuel Assistance application each and every year. More info is available by calling 800-479-6151 or 241-1165, or going online to www.dsw.state.vt.us/Programs_Pages/Fuel/fuel.shtml.

Crisis Fuel Program: For those in a heating crisis — no fuel or very close to running out of fuel — or for those who have received a disconnection notice from their electric company and need electricity to run a heating system, help may be available by going to the local Community Action Agency for help through the Crisis Fuel Program. In Chittenden County, contact Chittenden Community Action, 191 North St., Burlington 05401 or by phone at 863-6248 or 800-287-7971. After hours, nights, weekends and holidays, call 800-287-0589.

Town of Williston: The town has a very limited supply of emergency funds available to those who have exhausted all of the other social welfare programs. For more info call Susan Lamb, finance director, 878-0919.

Citizens Energy Corp. Oil Heat Program: offers discounted heating oil prices for those who qualify. More info online at www.citizensenergy.com.