Begin making progress toward affordable heating oil

Posted Sept. 02, 2008, at 6:22 p.m.

Winter is fast approaching. Time is running out. We need to identify and implement a solution to the heating oil crisis. With the Farmers’ Almanac now projecting a colder than normal winter season ahead, efforts to make heating oil more affordable cannot sit on the back burner.

Someone should explain to Presi-dent Bush that now is the time to push the button so that oil held in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or SPR, for a national emergency can be used to help heat homes.

Over each of the next five years, a minimum of 6 million to 8 million barrels of oil per year should be taken out of the SPR and pumped right into the heating oil distribution grid. This is critical not only for the millions of households across the northern tier of this country that are heating oil de-pendent, but also for institutions and public facilities — schools, hospitals, public safety buildings, — as well.

If the SPR holds the wrong type of oil, go ahead and exchange this an-nual allocation for the right type.

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According to the federal govern-ment’s latest statistics, as of a week ago, the SPR held 707.2 million barrels of oil.

American consumers are grappling with oil prices that are running sub-stantially higher than last year and four times higher than the average SPR purchase price. The situation is made worse by the worsening eco-nomic slump. Recent news of dozens of possible lost jobs in Rumford fur-ther underscores the magnitude of this economic downturn statewide.

Is it a crisis? You bet. Despite all the talk of pellet stoves and the dawn of a new era of wood burning, we as a state are really not ready for the com-ing winter. And speaking of readi-ness, I bet a lot of fire chiefs out there are a bit on edge as winter ap-proaches, too.

LIHEAP and other community-based programs play an important role, but with heating oil at $4 a gal-lon, these face an uphill battle. Eligi-ble households will be lucky to see 150 to 200 gallons this year, so the dye is cast.

Back on Aug. 8, this newspaper ran a headline that put everyone on notice — “State group fears ‘death by hypo-thermia’” — and Dawn Gagnon re-ported that the two words Maine Community Action Association President Matthew Smith hears most when he asks those at the forefront of helping Maine families get heating fuel assistance are “fear” and “des-peration.”

There is no time for any prolonged debate. It is time to act. Why worry about the future replacement costs for any of this SPR oil when we are talk-ing about perhaps 5 percent of the current inventory being applied to this relief effort? For our elderly population on a fixed income, which is most vulnerable and at risk in par-ticular given the sharp spike in heat-ing oil prices, a delay could be cata-strophic.

Back in May, Congress voted to stop purchasing oil for the SPR with the intent of suspending future buys until the price settles back to $75 per barrel. However, this action had only a limited effect on the unfolding oil heating crisis. Congress needs to do much more.

With a bit of determination, we can make reasonable progress over the next five years. We have already started to solve the weatherization, alternative energy and related ele-ments that make up a sound national energy plan. Among other things, Congress needs to extend the solar energy tax credit to 2016, while up-ping the maximum amount of the residential tax credit from the current $2,000 to $4,000.

The immediate objective here, however, is to make affordable heat-ing oil a reality this winter, and not simply await a dramatic fall in oil prices which may never happen. Tap-ping into the SPR right away to bring down home heating oil bills quickly is a common sense solution, and one that can be easily implemented.

Another good idea is to wish for an early spring.

Peter J. Brown is a freelance writer from Mount Desert.

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