Heating oil prices already causing anxiety

By Matthew J. Perry
Joe Moskowitz, owner of Casey Joe’s Coffee in Arkville, says that business has been steady through the week. But he notices a difference when Saturday rolls around.
“On the weekends I’m seeing plenty of second home-owners,” he said. “But not locals. People are staying home. If they don’t have to drive, they don’t.”
With gasoline prices still north of $4 a gallon, Delaware County, like rural communities across the nation, is already feeling the squeeze of record prices for crude oil. But as summer heat warms up the mountain communities, another subject is sending cold shivers down the spines of mountain residents.
That subject is fuel oil and kerosene for home heating. Fuel oil is currently being offered by local dealers at between $4.52 and $4.70 a gallon. According to the New York Energy and Research Development Association (NYSERDA), this is an increase of roughly $2 a gallon over the average cost of fuel oil in the county since last September. With prices climbing significantly each month, many residents are holding out hope that prices will level off. But oil companies have little good news to provide.
Most carriers will not announce prices for pre-payment or budget plans until July or August. An exception is the Mirabito Fuel Group; for contracts signed before the end of May, Mirabito offered prices of $4.399 for a budget cap plan and $4.229 for pre-pay plans. As of this week, the company’s figures had been revised to $4.999 for the budget plan and $4.839 for the pre-payment option.
One heating consultant, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that he doubted there would be a happy ending to the story. “I don’t think prices are going back down. Ever.
That prognosis has many residents preparing where they can. Dealers of wood, gas, and pellet stoves, as well as wood boilers, are reporting brisk sales and many inquiries.
Kevin Sullivan, a contractor in Delhi, is always in high demand, but he has noticed a marked interest in certain house repairs. “This is the year of the windows,” he said. “Everyone wants new windows. People are looking for all the ways they can tighten up the house.”
These options, while they may well pay for themselves over time, come at high prices at a time when the cost of living is steadily increasing. Interior stoves cost between $1,000 and $4,000, while a wood boiler, another popular alternative to oil burning furnaces, can cost $10,000 to buy and install. And then there is the cost of wood. Byron Trimball of Bovina, whose family sells wood locally, stated that the price of a cord of wood has held steady at approximately $175. But if oil prices continue to climb and demand for wood increases, this may change. “It’s hard to say now what will happen to the demand,” Trimball said. “I think a lot of people are sitting on the fence still, waiting to see what happens.”
For those on fixed incomes, the picture could be bleak. The federally funded Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) can supply qualifying low-income residents with perhaps a single tank of oil for the season, according to William Moon, the county’s director of social services. HEAP also provides emergency service programs for senior citizens and households with dependents. In the past, the program has helped as many as 500 residents per season. In hard economic times, that number could easily increase.
“I expect Albany to provide some real leadership,” Moon said. “We’re going to make a lot of noise about this issue.
“I’m very nervous about what’s going to happen,” he continued. “I think the price of heating oil will be much more severe for the county than gas prices. There are times you can choose not to drive your car.” Trying to live without heat through a long winter, he said, can be deadly.
Ultimately, prices may require more extensive changes in lifestyle. “We as a community might have to develop alternatives for housing. The idea of people on fixed incomes living on their own, not pooling resources, that way of life may have to be reevaluated,” said Moon.
Moskowitz wondered if others would not select a more immediate option. “I worry that people are losing the desire to stay in this area,” he said. “With these prices, why not move south? Or somewhere where you don’t rely on a car or a truck so much? I don’t think there’s a lot of hope out there right now.”