In need of alternatives

Heating costs are rising fast in the northeast US as winter looms

The dependence on heating fuels in New England has residents in a gridlock
Heating costs are rising fast in the northeast US as winter looms
Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images (Getty Images)
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Senators across the New England region of the US called on the Biden administration this week to prevent potential energy disruptions this winter.

The region relies heavily on natural gas, along with heating oil, to keep buildings warm. The senators from Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine said their states are feeling the impacts of rising prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has caused an energy crisis in Europe.

“With the upcoming winter season comes a real threat to energy reliability for residents and businesses in New England,” the senators stated. Their concern is that an extended cold snap this winter will leave the region without fuel supplies needed to maintain heat and power. The situation is particularly dangerous for low-income residents who are already struggling to pay heating bills. Cold-related deaths have been on the rise in recent years.

Rising costs of household energy

Residential energy prices are 15.4% higher in the northeast than the national average. Energy costs have actually started to fall everywhere in the US except for the northeast.

Dependence on heating oil

Despite living in a climate-conscious world, some US states still use billions of gallons of heating oil to keep homes warm. The northeast is by far the most reliant on heating oil, consuming 2.5 billion gallons alone in 2020.

The US states that heat their homes the most with oil

The states in the northeast that use the most residential heating oil are Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. While some of these states have shown a decline in usage, opting for natural gas, they still collectively consume over 2 billion gallons of oil annually.

Bunker fuel used for heating oil is the dirtiest and cheapest fuel out there. But the oil is about 30% cheaper than other fuel alternatives. Bunker fuel is used to power ships and cruise liners, with lower environmental regulations to keep the global shipping of goods going with low costs.

Heavy bunker fuel oils #4 and #6 were once responsible for 86% of soot pollution in NYC, according to the city’s DEP. The fuels were officially banned in the city in 2015. Heating fuel is now more commonly ultra-low sulfur #2 oil (ULS 2), biodiesel, and natural gas.

In 2021, natural gas fueled 46% of New York’s utility-scale in-state generation. But natural gas is not a renewable energy, and has its own spiking high prices. Natural gas quadrupled over the past two years due to rapidly growing exports and the LNG market for Europe. Greater demand for natural gas has lowered inventories, and exceeds the ability to deliver it.

Why are states still using heating oil?

Wide availability and affordability made heating oil the fuel choice of the past. But some states are still relying on decades-old tanks and infrastructure. In Maine, for example, three-fifths of households use oil as their primary energy source for home heating, a larger share than any other state. Maine’s natural gas use on a per capita basis was third-lowest in the nation in 2020, after Hawaii and Vermont, because of a lack of distribution systems.

As a result, millions of Mainers are now seeking home heating assistance, but high prices are expected to impact how much assistance programs can actually help. Average heating oil prices in Maine rose more than 80% to $5.71 per gallon in November compared with the previous year. Kerosene and propane prices have also risen, leading to high demand in firewood as Mainers anticipate a cold and expensive winter.