Propane & Heating Oil Crisis in Northern States: It’s Time for Change

Heating Oil Crisis in Northern States

What’s up with the fuel oil and propane companies, and how can the government keep ignoring this issue? It cannot seriously believe that consumers are willing to believe they are going broke in today’s high-priced market, yet a recent increase in problems with some Vermont companies has the public up in arms.

Suburban Oil and Propane sent out bills right after Christmas to dozens of customers announcing that their monthly payments were doubling or tripling in some cases and that the clients were late paying the increase, due December 20th. The increase notices sat on a desk until they were postmarked on December 26th, yet many Suburban customers are now being hit with late fees, disconnection notices, and huge payments due within thirty days or else. On Georgia, Vermont homeowner said her monthly payment of $87 per month suddenly increased to $287 a month. With her 900 square foot home kept heated at 65 degrees when she’s home and 62 when she’s at work, she only needs her oil tank filled twice a year. Her last fill up in November cost her $800, so no matter how you look at it, $287 a month for twelve months is far more than needed to cover what fuel is delivered to her home. She is sadly not alone.

An Ultramar customer in Milton on the “will-call” plan didn’t order propane, yet the company delivered to his home a month after he’d ordered 100 gallons. His November fill-up was meant to last him a few months since he switched to wood heat, but Ultramar’s Saint Albans supervisor told him that they wanted to move everyone off will-call plans and onto their automatic delivery. This new fill-up cost 80 cents more per gallon than it had just three weeks earlier leading to a bill of $700 that Ultramar said would be due on 1/17 or penalties would kick in. After arguing that in June he’d talked to an Ultramar worker who assured him that she’d noted in the computer that he wanted to remain a “will-call” customer, Ultramar said the best they would do is give him an extra fifteen days to make the payment. Acceptable? I think not.

Worse, this Ultramar customer took the argument to the state’s attorney general who stated the only thing the customer can do is call Ultramar back and have them pump out the unwanted amount. Ultramar’s response was that there is a service fee for coming out to the house. In the end, the homeowner in Milton feels pressured to make the payment by working overtime for the next month. Is this a reasonable solution? Not really, a recent examination of Ultramar’s third quarter statement through their parent company Valero showed they’d made a $848 million profit, so it’s not like they are hurting for money.

This leads back to the case of an elderly man from Jericho, Vermont who made his $220 payment to Suburban Oil on December 17th. The payment was due December 20th to a neighboring town. On December 26th, he received notice that his payment was not only overdue, but that his account was being discontinued on January 17th if he did not make a payment of $680, the new monthly payment amount that Suburban deemed he needed to make regularly. Someone on social security and an $800 IBM pension is supposed to be able to pay $680 a month for fuel oil? His tank is filled three or four times a year depending on the average January temperature. He keeps his home heated at 68 degrees and has recently decided to drop that to 65. Are these huge increases reasonable for those on fixed incomes? I’m saddened to think that this man is now facing taking out a home equity line of credit in order to pay his heating bill.

I did a little research. Suburban posted a $21 million dollar loss due to lump-sum retirement payouts, but this still led to revenues of $154 million, so they too are not hurting for money. How can they justify needing customer payments to increase by up to 200%?

It’s time for the government to get off their butts and make serious efforts to help out. Perhaps the time has come to establish price caps on the entire oil industry. I realize the current government won’t do anything to help out, but for those in the northern regions of the United States, homes must be heated in the winter. We don’t have a choice! If something isn’t done to help out, this winter will end up forcing many homeowners to sell their homes or face bankruptcy. Many are already having to choice between heating oil or groceries now that the government has cut heating assistance funding. Those who once qualified for heating assistance are being told the funding is running out and that they must find another way to come up with the money. All of the senators, congressmen, and other government officials need to wake up and realize that homeowners are in serious need of help NOW!

 

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