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Heating oil, gas prices rise in the toughest of times for many Upper Valley residents

  • Hunter Leveille, of Enfield, N.H., brings the propane line back to his truck after filling a homeowner's tanks on the Quechee-West Hartford Road in Hartford, Vt., on Feb. 23, 2021. Due to the weight of his Simple Energy truck, Leveille cannot cross the driveway's bridge. He has been delivering propane for the West Lebanon company for four years and works as a welder for them in the summertime. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At the customer's request, Hunter Leveille, of Enfield, N.H., delivers a set amount of propane to a mobile home in Bethel, Vt., on Feb. 23, 2021. Leveille, who works for Simple Energy in West Lebanon, N.H., said he noticed an uptick in deliveries after the recent $600 federal stimulus checks were distributed. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hunter Leveille, of Enfield, N.H., waves to a fellow home energy delivery driver while passing each other on Route 14 in West Hartford, Vt., on Feb. 23, 2021. Leveille, who delivers propane for Simple Energy, waved to the over half-dozen trucks delivering propane and heating oil that he passed on the road during his morning route. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 2/27/2021 10:16:26 PM
Modified: 2/27/2021 10:16:24 PM

PLAINFIELD — The cost of heating their double-wide trailer home is forcing Vickie and John Daniels to make hard choices many people don’t even have to think about.

Like spending money on gas so they can go for a car ride or splurging on Chinese takeout.

“My propane has gone up 85 cents a gallon since October,” said Vickie Daniels, noting that she paid $3.52 per gallon to buy 128 gallons of propane in January, up from the $2.67 per gallon she paid last fall.

The price of home heating fuel typically rises as demand peaks during winter months, but this season, financial pressures put on families and households as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have added to the burden.

This is particularly the case with propane, a byproduct of natural gas and oil refining and sometimes promoted as a cleaner alternative to heating oil.

Vickie Daniels, 62, and John Daniels, 65, live in Plainfield on $32,000 a year, income from John’s disability insurance and pension from the city of Lebanon, where he operated equipment at the transfer station and highway department for 40 years.

“Food prices have increased. Gasoline prices have increased and now propane prices have increased,” Vickie Daniels said. The couple no longer qualify for fuel assistance this season because of adjustments to determine eligibility and have stopped buying anything they do not absolutely need to survive, she said.

“We are narrowly squeaking by month to month now,” she said.

In New Hampshire, as of last week, the cost of residential propane has risen 14.2% to $3.29 per gallon from the same time last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In Vermont, propane is up 15.8% to $3.23 per gallon over the same period. The price of heating oil is actually down a few pennies per gallon in each state.

(The price a household pays for heating fuel can vary widely, depending on when the customer makes the purchase and from which distributor. Customers can avoid the sharp spikes in market prices by locking in a “pre-buy” contract, generally offered by distributors in the summer.)

Although the weather has been relatively mild in New England this winter, that hasn’t been the case at the heart of the propane industry: Texas, where much of the propane shipped to New England via pipeline and rail originates.

The price of propane was given a jolt earlier this month when an arctic blast plunged Texas into a record deep freeze, taking 19% of the country’s oil refining capacity offline and knocking out 7% of the country’s natural gas production. The freak weather event roiled the energy markets, pushing residential propane prices in the Twin States up 44 cents per gallon from this time last year.

“The pandemic already had us in a hole, and then this cold front was a double whammy,” said Casey Cota, president of Cota & Cota, a Bellow Falls, Vt.-based heating fuel distributor with a service office in White River Junction. “Prices are closing in on where they were two years ago.”

Indeed, one of the reasons that home heating costs have hit households so hard is that it follows a yearlong price slump in the market as the demand for fuel from businesses fell off sharply during the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. Last year, heating fuel prices dipped to a level they hadn’t been since 2016.

Fossil fuel energy prices tend to track parallel with each other. The price for regular gasoline, after sinking to a low of $1.74 per gallon at the nadir of the economic shutdown last April, has climbed nationally to $2.67 per gallon, the level it hovered at through late summer and fall of 2019.

“It’s not necessarily that propane prices are higher. It’s that they were so low” last year, said Rob Stenger, co-owner of fuel distributor Simple Energy in West Lebanon. “And they were low because of the pandemic and other trends like conservation and (power generation) alternatives that have created demand destruction” for fossil fuels.

Residential prices for propane in New England bounced around $3.30 per gallon for much of 2010 to 2012, then they fell and held at around $3 per gallon in 2013 before suddenly shooting up and peaking at $4.02 in February 2014. Prices subsequently retreated to $2.58 per gallon in late 2015 and then steadily climbed back to $3.20 per gallon in the winter of 2019 until they sharply dropped to $2.50 to $2.60 per gallon in 2020.

Another factor spooking the price of propane, according to distributors: President Joe Biden’s cancellation of the 1,200-mile Keystone XL pipeline to transport oil from Canada to Texas, whose proponents argue will hold down the cost of gasoline and other petroleum-based products.

“I hate to say it, but I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the upward trend in prices,” Stenger said.

Debates about supply and demand and the vagaries of geopolitics, often cited as the reasons behind the cost of gas at the pump or what it costs heat a home during winter, don’t mean much to consumers, however. Prices do, and when the cost of propane takes a steep turn upward, it has real consequences for homeowners.

Anne Leidinger, who works as a nurse three days at week in Burlington and lives in South Strafford, said she “went through $700 worth of propane” from Jan. 23-Feb. 16 to heat the 1850s house she bought in 2019.

Her propane bill “surprised me so much” that Leidinger said she turned down the thermostat “in the older part of the house” to save on the cost of heating — and her pipes burst.

Fortunately, Leidinger said, she’s a “kind of a DIY person” and, after a “couple trips to Home Depot in West Lebanon,” was able to repair the pipes herself. But having to spend more than she foresaw on propane this winter means she is having to forgo needed car repairs.

“Both of my cars are having issues right now, but I can’t get them fixed because I’m already putting out a lot of money,” Leidinger said.

Despite the higher costs of propane, the state of Vermont and social service organizations said they have not seen an increase in the number of requests from people seeking help from the fuel assistance program. But that might be due to the federal government’s stimulus checks paid directly to people this year because of the pandemic.

Richard Giddings, director of heating and utility assistance programs with the Vermont Department for Children & Families, reports the department as of Feb. 24 had provided fuel assistance to 17,838 households, which is 758 fewer than last year.

“Some of that could be because of the additional federal benefits that were offered like Pandemic Unemployment Assistance as well as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation,” he said via email.

But thanks to the federal CARES Act program which provided the state with $5 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding, Giddings said DCF has been able to provide a “higher seasonal fuel benefit,” averaging $914 per household.

But even people who need the assistance may not be able to tap it because of eligibility requirements.

Anna Davidson, of Bradford, Vt., said she earns $1 per hour more than allowed under the 185% federal poverty level for the number of people in her 1,000-square-foot household in her job with a letter and parcel shipping organization.

“I just placed an order to top off my (propane) tank at $3.17 per gallon.” She estimates that comes out to an extra $400 over what she had spent on her previous order in January.

“I’m going to have to work overtime to pay that off — $400 is a lot of work,” Davidson said.

“I’m lucky I’m in good standing with the company. My credit is good because I pay my bills. But what about people who can’t? That’s a scary thing. What happens to them?”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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