Home heating worries arrive with cold weatherby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesotans will pay more to heat their homes this winter. The latest forecast shows the price of all energy sources is up. Natural gas -- the fuel used by 70 percent of Minnesota households -- is projected to be about 17 percent higher than last winter. But the news is worse for people who still heat their homes with fuel oil. Heating oil has become the most expensive way to stay warm. Prices are expected to be up 23 percent this winter. Observers say heating oil customers are often the least able to afford those kind of price hikes.
Bemidji, Minn. — Bob and Nancy Krumrey are in their 60s. They live in a modest home in the country west of Bemidji.
When they walk outside to the north end of the house, the Krumreys see a reminder of the troubles they know they'll have this winter. It's a 265-gallon heating oil tank they can't afford to fill.
"Well, there's the tank," said Bob Kumrey as he bangs on it with a stick. "The tank is empty, there's nothing. It ran out, and we ran out of money."
The Krumreys are on a fixed income. They live on Nancy's disability checks and Bob's veterans pension.
Last winter they burned more than $2,000 worth of fuel oil. They got some help from the federal fuel assistance program, but even that wasn't enough.
Nancy Krumrey says last winter their fuel tank went dry more times than she can remember. When that happened, Nancy would sometimes open the oven door on her stove for heat. They'd often huddle around a portable space heater.
"It's an electric heater to keep our kitchen warm when we get up in the morning," said Nancy Kumrey. "And at night, under the covers to keep warm at night... We're going to freeze to death."
That kind of anxiety is becoming more common this year.
Patty Hargraves, who works with the fuel assistance program for Beltrami and Cass counties, says only about seven percent of Minnesotans heat with fuel oil, but most are elderly or low income families.
She knows people who had to choose between paying for their prescription drugs or buying fuel.
Hargraves says last year the number of households applying for emergency heating assistance through her office nearly doubled from the year before.
"We felt that people were becoming more desperate last year," said Hargraves. "When they'd call needing the help, talking about how they're going to be able to pay for food and heating and be able to cover everything, we sensed it, and I have a feeling it's going to be grow even more this year."
Most Minnesotans have protection from losing heat in the winter.
The state has something called the Cold Weather Rule. It means that between Oct. 15 and April 15, natural gas and electric utility companies can't disconnect struggling customers, as long as they contact the company and agree to a payment plan.
But that rule doesn't apply to delivered fuels like heating oil. Hargraves says that makes fuel oil customers especially vulnerable.
"What we're hearing so far this year is people are fearful," she said. "There's no cold weather rule protection like there is with the connected utilities. If the person doesn't have the funds, the fuel vendors can definitely deny them the fuel."
That puts fuel oil distributors in an uncomfortable spot. Brent Magnuson runs a family-owned oil and propane company in Bemidji. He says not long ago a gallon of fuel oil was only 99 cents.
Back then, companies like his used to let struggling customers charge their fuel purchases and pay over time. Now, with fuel oil approaching four dollars a gallon, it's strictly cash only.
Magnuson says that means his delivery drivers have to pass by homes, even when they know those customers are out of fuel.
"It's hard sometimes. It's really hard," said Magnuson. "Sometimes you're on the phone and you hear some stories like, 'My kids are going to be cold this winter,' and that's tough. But I can't put the company in jeopardy."
Magnuson says the high fuel oil prices are forcing people to get by any way they can, and this winter may be worse than ever.
"You're starting to see more and more people come with five-gallon pails, or even milk jugs, gallon milk jugs they'll bring in," Magnuson said. "Whatever they have in their pocket that day and they need enough heat to get them through the day or the week. Very desperate."
Last year, about 125,000 Minnesota households got fuel assistance to help with heating bills. State Department of Commerce spokesman Bill Walsh says he expects the need to be greater this winter.
"We absolutely think that this is going to be a tough winter," said Walsh. "With the prices the way they are, our grants aren't going to go as far. We're going to try to help the same number of families as we did last year, but their grants are just not going to be as high a percent of their total bill."
It's still unclear whether Congress will increase funding for the fuel assistance program. That decision isn't expected until early next year.
- All Things Considered, 09/11/2008, 5:23 p.m.