CONSUMER FORUM

Consumer Forum: Oil dependence is a hard habit to break

Posted Oct. 23, 2011, at 11:35 a.m.

Every consumer in Maine has noticed the fluctuation in oil prices lately. In a tough economy, those changes have prompted a lot of conversation about the topic.

It’s easy to talk about the need to reduce our dependence on oil. Actually doing it will require more determination, resolve and effort than most of us have expended to date. The hard fact is, it’s a difficult habit to break.

About 10 days ago, a group called Environment Maine released a report calling for a 40 percent reduction in oil use in the state by 2030. Based on the Pine Tree State’s consumption of 37 million gallons of oil in 2008, that would project total oil use in 2030 around 23 million gallons.

That assumes aggressive measures to conserve, using alternatives and otherwise beginning to quench our insatiable thirst for petroleum products. The report said a “business-as-usual approach” would result in lower savings and a total consumption figure closer to 30 million gallons.

The authors admit all projections are just that; our actual results certainly will vary. The hard truth is for all the talk about the need to reduce consumption, the consuming public is all over the map in cutting use.

It’s a hard sell in Maine, for a variety of reasons. The biggest is our climate; long, tough winters require us to generate a lot of heat. More than 400,000 households — about 75 percent of all Maine homes — rely on oil for warmth. Some homeowners have turned to pellets and other biofuels for heat.

The last session of the Maine Legislature saw passage of LD 553, An Act to Improve Maine’s Energy Security. The law calls for cutting oil consumption statewide by 30 percent by 2030 and by 50 percent by 2050. The governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security has until Dec. 1, 2012, to figure out how to meet those goals. The bill became law without the signature of Gov. Paul LePage, who wants to ramp up use of natural gas, calling it plentiful and efficient.

Critics argue that trading one fossil fuel for another just delays inevitable shortages and invites higher costs by profit-hungry energy companies. Environment Maine and like-minded groups call for a laundry list of better practices, including electric vehicles, doubling mass transit ridership, promoting high-speed rail and bicycling, and retrofitting homes and businesses to save energy.

Our responses as consumers likely fall into one of two categories: “We’ve heard it all before” and “It won’t work here.” The first group has caulked, weatherstripped and insulated everywhere; they doubt the cost-effectiveness of further steps, which many can’t afford without government-sponsored incentives. The second group notes our geography, which discourages transport options geared to more populous regions. Some of us resent the carrot of electric cars dangled before us by makers who offer them only “in select markets.”

As a society, we’re conditioned to expect simple answers to most problems; we’re frustrated when geography and geopolitical realities defy easy solutions. So let’s think about making some hard decisions. Let’s let Maine’s policymakers know our feelings as they make the rules that will shape our energy policy for the future.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to necontact.wordpress.com, or email contacexdir@live.com.

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