Cold Raises Demand for Heating Fuel
Cold weather across much of the eastern United States is increasing demand for energy and bringing higher heating bills at a time when the recession has already sent millions of families in search of winter fuel aid.
In Scranton, Pa., the agency that handles requests for home heating assistance has been deluged with requests, many from families that have never sought help before.
"This is as bad as it has ever been," says Fred Lettieri, executive director of the Scranton-Lackawanna County Human Development Agency.
His office is getting 300 to 350 callers a day but is able to help only 90 to 100 of them, he says. The agency can provide up to $400 to purchase heating fuel, using federal energy aid.
"There is a new poor," Lettieri says, "people, families who normally would not have to apply for this program, but they are unemployed or underemployed."
Last month, state directors of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program reported that the number of households receiving heating aid rose from 6.1 million in 2008 to a record 8.3 million in 2009. The National Energy Assistance Directors' Association projects a 20 percent increase this year.
States are likely to respond by cutting benefits and tightening eligibility requirements, association spokesman Mark Wolfe says.
In Jackson, Mich., Salvation Army Major John Mallett says the number of families asking for heating aid is up 15 percent to 20 percent this winter. Case workers are double-booked with appointments, he says, and half the $700,000 available for emergency family aid will go for heating fuel.
Tanya Robertson, 35, turned to the Salvation Army for help when the natural gas was about to be shut off at the home where she, her husband and four children, ages 9 years to 7 months, live. They had never asked for help, she says, but two emergency hospitalizations wrecked their finances. They were $1,400 behind on the heating bill.
"Had they not been able to help us, we honestly probably wouldn't have heat right now," she says. "It was extremely scary. Extremely."
In Rhode Island, two-thirds the number of households that got heating aid by the end of winter last year have already received it this winter, says Matteo Guglielmetti, administrator of energy programs. Using federal aid, community agencies can give low-income families heating grants up to $900.
"We have seen an increase over the last couple weeks because of being in the heart of winter, the cold weather, the unemployment and economic factors within our state, and especially the increase in the price of oil," Guglielmetti says.
Cold in Europe helped raise the global price of oil from a $70-a-barrel benchmark last month to more than $82, says Tancred Lidderdale, senior economist with the Energy Information Administration.
"Oil prices have been on a steady increase since the middle of December, and that's driving up heating oil prices," he says.
Home heating oil prices averaged $2.77 a gallon in December, more than 28 cents higher than the average during December 2008.