Maine has the country’s oldest housing stock, oldest population, most miles of roads and longest average commute. All these factors conspire to trap Mainers in a vicious cycle that keeps us dependent on unstable, unfriendly foreign nations for a commodity that is subject to massive price volatility.

The Legislature has made weatherizing Maine homes its top energy policy, using the lion’s share of federal economic stimulus funds for various weatherization initiatives. Our home heating crisis cannot be solved only through weatherizing, because weatherization doesn’t address the real problem: Maine needs a plan to stop using foreign oil.

We need to begin the transition to the future of home heating in our state. That future is non-fossil based renewable resources. In the crude refining process, heating oil and diesel fuel are made from the same part of the barrel. Eighty percent of the home heating oil used in the United States is used in nine states in the northeast, while all 50 states need that same small portion of crude to fuel the trucks that move our freight.

The refiners need choose between selling the same refined fuel for transportation and selling it for home heating. When push comes to shove, it will be the 50 states that need diesel to fuel the interstate transportation, that keeps groceries and everything else on store shelves, not the nine states that want heating oil, that will win.

It makes more sense to use crude to make diesel for transportation where there is no viable substitute, especially when there are other renewable ways to heat our homes available today.

No matter how you process it, oil is going to get more expensive in the near future. We will see $4 per-gallon heating oil again. Over the long-term, the price of oil has never retreated. Once the price reaches a peak at market, it always returns to that peak as the new base. And it doesn’t take long.

Two to three years from now, oil will march back to previous highs. When that occurs, will we have done anything to get Maine off its addiction to foreign oil? Perversely, without a fuel conversion program, we will have reinforced its use and we will be spending ever increasing amounts for LIHEAP.

Since the federal stimulus package was introduced earlier this year through today, the price of a barrel of crude oil has increased more than 50 percent – from less than $40 to more than $72 a barrel (according to December futures contract). Weatherization projects resulting in 20 percent energy efficiency are already under water and as the price of oil increases, we get further behind. We have already lost more than we theoretically saved.

If the price of oil had been $4 per-gallon for the past 12 months, we would not be talking about weatherization as our major energy policy initiative. Our main goal would be to reduce the use of foreign oil to heat our homes. If a gallon of heating oil was still $4, everyone’s hair would be on fire trying to find ways to eradicate the use of oil for home heating before it bankrupted us.

The rising price of heating oil is a catastrophe we know is coming. We had a brief reprieve when the global economic slowdown provided relief last winter. But when oil hits $4 again, what have we done to prepare?

The Legislature plans to weatherize all of the 470,000 homes in Maine – a plan that, if achieved, will take more than 20 years and cost billions, resulting in 20 percent efficiency for heating Maine homes with oil. We need a plan that helps people with 100-year-old houses and 30-year-old oil heating systems switch from oil to renewable sources. A plan that helps to end our addiction to oil.

It is not unreasonable to predict heating oil spiking to $4 per gallon this winter. I know folks don’t want to hear this and perhaps they won’t pay mind to it. We talk about what needs to be done to be prepared for these events, but stop short of marshaling the resources to follow through on the rhetoric. And when the catastrophe happens, we blame government for their lack of leadership.

Maine needs a bold vision, an ambitious stated goal of energy independence that Mainers can rally around to lead ourselves out of our energy crisis. Standing at the crossroads of an impending crisis of heating oil prices and the opportunities provided by the federal economic stimulus package, our leaders in Maine today could be bolder, their vision clearer and they could have done more to lead us to energy independence now.

My guess is that, now, we are in the eye of the storm.

Les Otten is president of Maine Energy Systems, chairman of Maine Pellet Fuels Association and chaired the governor’s Wood-to-Energy Task Force. He lives in Greenwood.


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