Daniel DiDonato, a deliveryman for Heatable, brings heating oil to a home in Lewiston on Dec. 16, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The heat has already kicked on for some in Aroostook County in a signal of financial pain to come from high oil prices with the November elections approaching.

Maine got a glimpse of cold-weather spikes after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year. No. 2 oil sat last week at an average price of $4.59 per gallon statewide, a mark that is coming down from a May high but is still nearly 23 percent higher than it was at the beginning of February. It remains in a range that is unaffordable for many Maine families.

The coming costs associated loom large in oil-dependent Maine. Both polls and candidates say it is on people’s minds as they are set to elect a governor, Legislature and two members of Congress. With Democrats in charge of Washington and Augusta, Republicans are putting costs at the front of their campaigns, although high prices are a national and global phenomenon.’More than three-fifths of Mainers use oil to heat their homes, according to Census data. They also use more fuel than their Northeastern counterparts due to cold temperatures. More households have been keeping their homes at unsafe temperatures here than any other state.

Fuel prices are highest in northern Maine, including Ashland, 30 minutes west of Presque Isle. Michael Jandro, 43, and Jillian Park, 62, who moved there in 2020 from Arizona, wondered how they would afford last winter with heating bills rising to $800, roughly on par with their mortgage payment.

They were bailed out by a community agency, the Aroostook County Action Program, which primarily helps low-income earners and administers federal heating assistance in a county that is one-third poorer than the rest of the nation.

“If it wasn’t for ACAP last year and now giving us a new heat furnace, we would be screwed,” Jandro said.

If things stay this way, the issue will be nearly impossible to ignore come Election Day. Jandro said he wishes there was something state or the federal policymakers could do to cap heating oil prices. Park suggested officials could help Mainers with some sort of tax credit.

Both Jandro and Park felt that the Democrats had their best interests at heart on issues like heating oil and plan to vote that way this November. Jandro, a former Republican who says he follows national politics more than the state level, said that the top issues for his old party have seemed to be abortion and guns.

But it is Republicans who have kept their focus on the costs since the spring. In May, LePage and former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, opposing Gov. Janet Mills and Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District, respectively, campaigned together at a Bangor gas station.

Last week, the state party alerted reporters to a report on inflation from congressional Republicans finding Mainers would spend nearly $6,800 this year over 2021 at July inflation levels. That was less than any other state, underscoring the national scope of the problem.

The state’s main response to rising costs was a round of $850 relief checks that came as part of a $1.2 billion spending plan fueled by federal COVID-19 aid. It began as an idea from legislative Republicans that was picked up by Mills, a first-term Democrat.

LePage opposed the checks. The $729 million used to fund the checks should have instead been used to create a fund to “stabilize and subsidize” heating oil prices for Mainers, said John McGough, the former governor’s first chief of staff and now his campaign manager.

McGough slammed Mills’ energy policies as “radical” and “extreme,” singling out a measure she signed in 2021 requiring the state to divest itself of fossil-fuel assets by 2026 with some exceptions and alluding to her recent request for more federal heating assistance.

“Maine households are now in serious jeopardy, so Janet will once again go begging to Washington, D.C. for more borrowed federal dollars,” McGough said. “The result of Janet’s extremist energy policies has real-world consequences.”

The governor has made several efforts to directly help Mainers pay their utility costs, said Mary-Erin Casale, a Mills campaign spokesperson. She cited the relief checks, heating assistance payments of $800 to 13,000 low-income households, a small credit to 90,000 low-income households and tax relief for low-income families and seniors.

Over the long term, Mills wants to address high prices now while reducing Maine’s dependency on fossil fuel, something that was an early goal of LePage’s after he was elected in 2010.

“[Gov.] Mills is not interested in playing politics with home heating oil,” Casale said. “She’s interested in making sure people have the resources they need to stay safe and warm this winter.”

The two candidates running to represent Jandro and Park in the Maine House of Representatives said the price of oil is one of the major problems cited by voters. Former NASCAR driver Austin Theriault, a Republican from Fort Kent, said some he has spoken to have had electricity bills double on top of the fuel increases. He hoped lawmakers would work in a bipartisan fashion on the issue next year.

“Clean energy approaches should be in the mix, but financially sustainable over the long-run, as well as not put undue strain on families and those on a fixed income, who out of all, feel the strain out of touch energy policies create for working families,” he said in an email. 

His Democratic opponent, Dana Appleby of Saint John Plantation, believes the state should raise income thresholds for programs like heat and weatherization assistance and devote more money to those types of initiatives. Like Mills, she backs long-term plans to reduce oil dependence. She worried about her own costs after the heat kicked on in August.

“It’s not a Republican or a Democrat problem, it’s a problem everybody’s facing,” Appleby said. “We all shouldn’t have to pay these high prices, so we should work together to find a common ground.”