Highest Heating Costs in Years Strain Many in New England

RUMFORD, Maine — As early March battered western Maine with a pair of back-to-back snowstorms, and the heating oil in her basement tank dwindled, Casie Blodgett wondered again how she would afford to fill it.

In her native North Carolina, spring was already in the air, the warming temperatures beginning to lighten the load of the highest home heating costs in years. But in the foothills of the White Mountains, where Ms. Blodgett moved two years ago to be closer to her husband’s family, many more weeks of cold weather loomed ahead. She would need to buy more oil at about $4 per gallon, or $1,000 to fill the 250-gallon tank.

A mother of two, online college student, and part-time home care worker for disabled clients, Ms. Blodgett considers herself skilled at getting by after years of practice. But no matter how she did the math, she and her husband’s combined monthly income of roughly $5,000 was not enough to pay for heat along with groceries, gas and all the rest.

“It’s overwhelming, and it feels hopeless, too,” said Ms. Blodgett, 35. “It feels like I’m failing as a mother, because I’m doing everything I can, and I’m falling short.”

Across New England, where more households rely on oil for heat than anywhere else in the nation and cold weather can persist well into April, families with fixed or limited incomes have been hit with exceptionally high heating bills this winter. In Maine, program administrators say they expect to approve 15 to 20 percent more applications for heating assistance in the 2022-23 season than the previous year, while in New Hampshire, applications filed from last fall through mid-February were up 35 percent over last year, with the volume continuing to grow, according to the state’s Department of Energy.

Nationwide, the number of households receiving government help to pay energy costs has risen by an estimated 1.3 million this winter, to more than 6 million, the largest year-over-year increase since 2009, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, a policy group in Washington.

Even in a winter far from the coldest on record, oil-dependent New England has faced a perfect storm of challenges, Mr. Wolfe said. The price of home heating oil has nearly doubled in two years, driven by a slew of supply-sapping factors including the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, as well as reduced refinery capacity linked to pandemic closures and deferred maintenance. At the same time, economic disruptions at home — surging inflation and the end of the expanded pandemic child tax credit — depleted household resources.

While only 4 percent of households across the United States rely on oil heat, the rate is much higher in the Northeast, and especially the far north: About 60 percent of homes in Maine, and 40 percent in Vermont and New Hampshire, depend on oil or kerosene, Mr. Wolfe said.

“As energy costs rise, along with food and gas and rent, it hits low-income families the hardest,” he said. “If current trends continue, the yearly cost of home energy could reach close to $4,000 this year — 27 percent of total income for the lowest-income families.”

The ND Paper mill in Rumford. Last winter, Ms. Blodgett said, her family received $800 from the state’s Heating and Energy Assistance Program; this year, with her husband making slightly more at a new job, they did not qualify.Credit…Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

Even small gains in income can make households ineligible for heating assistance, which is generally available to those making up to 60 percent of a state’s median income. In Maine, for a family of four, the threshold for ongoing assistance is $59,348, though emergency aid is also available. Last winter, Ms. Blodgett said, her family received $800 from the state’s Heating and Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP; this year, with her husband making slightly more at a new job at a sawmill, they did not qualify.

Her budget has also been stretched, she said, by higher prices for groceries, gas and electricity. Her car recently required $2,200 in repairs, then her washing machine broke and had to be replaced. Most worrisome of all, an upcoming surgery, long delayed, will keep her out of work for several weeks without pay.

She is deeply grateful for the help her family received last month from a local church, Praise Assembly of God, which paid for a 50-gallon delivery of oil to their home. It had lasted for three weeks, but was nearly gone. As the tank inched closer to empty, Ms. Blodgett felt the anxiety of living so close to the edge, unable to save for the future.

“Bad things happen, but I try to have the mind-set that something good will come out of it,” she said at her kitchen table one afternoon last week, as her 11-year-old son played video games in the living room and the family’s two basset hound puppies crowded near her feet. “That doesn’t mean I don’t wish it were easier, because I do.”

Across the state, many turned to wood heat this winter to avoid the cost of oil. In the Midcoast region, north of Portland, the Waldo County Woodshed, a “wood bank” providing free firewood to people in need, has faced far greater demand than it did last year, said Bob MacGregor, who runs the volunteer operation.

By early March, the group’s supply was down to two or three cords, forcing it to limit donations to extreme cases. Another wood bank reported receiving a call from a woman who said she had been burning boards from her shed to stay warm.

“She was just in self-preservation mode,” a volunteer for the operation, DownEast Wood Bank, wrote in a Facebook post.

The Blodgett home was covered in snow and ice earlier this month.Credit…Tristan Spinski for The New York Times
A mostly empty oil tank in the Blodgett home. The price of home heating oil has nearly doubled over the last two years.Credit…Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

Local agencies that vet applications have been overwhelmed at times. One, Downeast Community Partners, said last week it is still receiving more than 200 calls a day from people seeking help, and recently hired three new employees as a result. Staff members said residents often wait to call until their pipes have frozen, and some report sleeping in their cars to stay warm.

In a nod to this year’s extraordinarily high heating costs, the state is in the process of sending $450 checks to an estimated 880,000 people, most of its 1.3 million residents, as part of an emergency energy relief bill approved by legislators in January. The $473 million package also allocated $50 million to match federal funds received by the state for heating assistance, doubling the average benefit to between $1,600 and $2,200, according to the state.

Other states are trying innovative approaches. In New York, a new “Energy Affordability Guarantee” announced in January will cap energy bills for low-income residents at 6 percent of their income.

The goal is to help impoverished families manage competing expenses, relieving pressure to give up necessities. Nationwide, 47 percent of families making $30,000 to $50,000 reported they cut back on food or medication at least once in the past year to pay energy bills, compared with 37 percent the previous year, according to the Census Bureau.

“It’s overwhelming, and it feels hopeless, too,” Ms. Blodgett, 35, said. “It feels like I’m failing as a mother, because I’m doing everything I can, and I’m falling short.”Credit…Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

In Rumford, a blue-collar Maine town of 6,000 people, where snow-dusted hills frame the Androscoggin River and white plumes rise from a century-old paper mill, average high temperatures in March hover just above 40 degrees.

With high winds and heavy snow expected the next day, Ms. Blodgett knew the house would be drafty, as cold air pushed through gaps around the windows and doors. When extreme cold sets in, she said, she tacks blankets over the doors to try and conserve heat.

States are pushing programs to weatherproof old homes and increase energy efficiency, but high demand can drive delays. Ms. Blodgett said the state offered two years ago to make improvements to her windows and change the filter in her oil tank, but neither task was done before she lost her eligibility for the heating assistance program.

Ms. Blodgett credits her father for instilling her grit and self-sufficiency; she was devastated by his unexpected death from a heart attack last year. But she is forging ahead with his lessons intact, she said, devoting 18 to 20 hours a week to her online classes and maintaining a 3.98 G.P.A., as she pursues an associate degree in human services: a steppingstone, she hopes, to a job with higher pay.

In the meantime, after receiving her heating relief check from the state last week, she was able to buy 100 gallons of oil at $4.29 per gallon, she said — down from a November high of $5.71 per gallon, at least. She expected it to last about six weeks, into the middle of April and closer to May, when she finally stops wearing her coat inside the house.

“I am cold all the time,” she said. “I do not come out of my coat.”

Rumford before a snowstorm this month. Across New England, where cold weather can persist well into April, more households rely on oil for heat than anywhere else in the nation.Credit…Tristan Spinski for The New York Times
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