More Mainers are getting heating assistance late this winter with oil prices escalating during a spate of cold spells and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Things are about to get tougher for Mainers after President Joe Biden said he will ban all imports of Russian oil, gas and coal on Tuesday in a move aimed at further cutting off President Vladimir Putin’s economy from the Western world.
Hardest hit will be low-income Mainers on heating-assistance programs with a fixed benefit. Heating programs already are paying benefits to more households than they did last year. In Maine, 3 in 5 households use oil as their primary heat source, higher than any other state.
“We’re seeing a late-season surge because of the cost and it taking a lot less time to get through the benefit,” said Jason Parent, executive director and CEO of the Aroostook County Action Program, one of Maine’s 10 community action agencies that takes heating assistance applications.
The number of new applicants in Aroostook County rose 14 percent as of Jan. 10, with 5,540 new and returning recipients getting heating help as of March 4. The county is seeing more than average calls for energy help, Recipients get a flat amount for the season determined by the federal government and MaineHousing.
“The amount of the benefit will remain the same but what an individual recipient can buy doesn’t go as far,” said Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts in Lewiston, another community action agency.
His program has paid out an average of $700 to $900 to 4 percent more eligible households this heating season, which started in October, and 1,6oo applicants still need to be checked for eligibility.
The average price for a gallon of heating oil in Maine began rising after Russian President Vladimir Putin began threatening to invade Ukraine in mid-January. The $3.44 per gallon price on Jan. 24 rose 12 percent to $3.86 on Feb. 28, according to the latest figures from Gov. Janet Mills’ energy office. That was just after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
MaineHousing, which disburses funds to fuel companies for homeowners and renters on the Home Energy Assistance Program, said there is enough money in the fund, known as HEAP, to pay existing and new recipients through this heating season. But escalating prices on a fixed budget is concerning “when people are in need and throughout the pandemic,” Dan Brennan, director of MaineHousing, said.
Existing aid recipients started this heating season with a cushion of leftover money from a $21 million federal stimulus infusion late in the previous season, Brennan said. That added to MaineHousing’s $35 million budget for heating assistance this season.
More than 38,000 Maine households received a heat benefit last year and this year is on track to reach the same number. MaineHousing sends out an average of $700,000 in assistance weekly, with households receiving $600 to $900.
Making times even more difficult to navigate financially are the higher electricity bills most Mainers faced starting in January, higher gas prices and the effect of inflation on household goods and groceries, Parent said.
Parent and Brennan expect federal programs to step in if the steep price rise continues.
Other programs may help ease some of the cost burden. In Maine, 13,000 low-income households are eligible for a one-time, $800 payment to help pay heating bills. The $10.3 million program from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, announced by Mills in early March, is focused on families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those getting the payment are still eligible for HEAP benefits.
Emergency programs will kick in if someone can’t afford to fill up their tank. Yardley worries that people running low on fuel may turn off their furnaces too early, and their pipes may freeze, or use alternative heat sources that might not be safe.
“The end of the winter can be really tough if you use an inefficient wood stove as a supplement and the exhaust backs up,” he said. “I think the fire danger goes up when the oil price goes up.”