James O’Clair had to do something.
With an oil tank running out at home, O’Clair, 59, braved the sub-zero temperatures and drove to the Big Apple on Elm Street in Waterville to fill his 10-gallon container of kerosene.
“The place I usually get it delivered from can’t do it until Monday,” O’Clair said.
He’s not alone.
The extreme cold of the last several days has slowed fuel deliveries in central Maine, so that even a family with a documented heating emergency might have to wait as long as a week to get fuel.
And the greater than normal demand for heating fuel is not only having an impact on deliveries, but also on fuel assistance programs designed to help those who can’t afford it to heat their homes.
When a cold snap with temperatures that dropped as low as minus 20 and wind chills as low as 30 or more below zero hit central Maine the past week, it caused an explosion of phone calls to social service agencies, state offices and fuel vendors — anyone who might be able to help get a few gallons of oil into a dangerously low tank.
Kelly LaChance struggled to handle calls from the roughly 13,000 households in Kennebec, Lincoln, Sagahadoc and Somerset counties that rely on the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program for some of their heating needs.
“We can’t keep up right now,” LaChance, the organization’s energy manager, said Friday.
LaChance said the program typically deals with between eight and 10 emergency calls per day, but the recent cold snap pushed the number to as many as 30 emergency calls a day.
The office’s recorded message discouraged callers from trying to follow up on their applications for the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, which disburses $37 million throughout the state.
“Due to a high volume of calls and limited staff we are unable to check the status of your LIHEAP application,” the message said. “It takes six to eight weeks to process and you will be notified by mail.”
At any given time, there were as many as 20 people on hold for one of the two workers answering calls, and wait times were sometimes as long as an hour, LaChance said.
She and her co-workers are caught in a no-win situation between the forces of supply and demand.
On the demand side are hundreds of desperate clients, many of them emotional, seeking help to keep the creeping cold at bay.
“We are getting yelled at, screamed at, sworn at,” she said. “But we can’t do any more than we’re doing.”
Frustrated by the phone wait times, some drove to the office.
“They can’t get through to us so they’re walking in our door,” she said. “We have waiting rooms full of people.”
Meanwhile, on the supply side, some fuel vendors had such tight delivery schedules that emergency situations couldn’t be addressed until next Friday, a full week after the emergencies were first documented.
“They’re not taking any new customers and no new deliveries,” LaChance said. “We can’t get any vendors to deliver.”
LaChance said she has little advice for those in need who are left with a dry fuel tank and the bitter cold.
“We have to ask them to go and buy five or 10 gallons a day until someone can get there,” she said.
John Wheeler, a representative of CN Brown, which has more than 1,000 workers in the region, said the company is dealing with the demand as quickly as it can.
“We’re not cold and uncompassionate people,” he said. “It’s just a bad situation out there.”
Demand has exploded
The community action program wasn’t the only one seeing high call volumes.
Typically, MaineHousing receives about 130 calls per day from people seeking help from the heating assistance program. Over the past few days, the number jumped to about 500 calls, according to Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the program, which oversees the LIHEAP program for the state.
About $3 million of the program’s money is earmarked for emergencies — qualified applicants who are almost out of oil and have no way to refill the tank.
The early demand on that emergency money has exploded.
At this point last year, 45 households had received a total of $16,900 in emergency funding.
This year, 810 households have received $304,000 in emergency money, 18 times last year’s amount.
The fund shows no sign of depletion — $304,000 is about 10 percent of the 3 million in the account, but it is early in the season, with at least three months of heating needs ahead.
The guidelines to qualify for emergency heating help are relatively strict. The benefits are given only once, and only to those income-qualified applicants whose tanks have less than an eighth of a tank of fuel left. Those who have alternative heating sources or access to credit with their fuel vendors are not eligible.
Turcotte said the program is supposed to supplement, not entirely take care of, people’s heating needs.
“It’s not intended to be a program to fund their entire heating bill,” she said.
Turcotte said the state encourages people to stay with friends or relatives and to take advantage of warming centers to keep heating costs down. State workers advise many callers to dial 211 — United Way’s statewide directory for social services — for a program that also offers heating assistance.
But the United Way is also being flooded with calls, partially because the winter began with the coldest December in at least 10 years. The average temperature was 19.4 degrees in central Maine as compared to a 30-year December average of 25.6 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in Gray. The average temperature so far this month in the Waterville area is minus 5.
Annually, including warmer months, the number of heating assistance calls received by the United Way on the 211 service outstrips those of any other category, with more than 7,000 calls in the 12-month period ending in June.
Tina Chapman, president of the United Way of Mid-Maine, said some calls are referred to KVCAP, which disperses the United Way’s Keeping Mid-Maine Warm Fund.
“When it’s cold like this, you just feel for the folks who are hurting,” she said. In one recent case, she said, the group helped a woman who was heating her home with an oven, which Chapman said is neither safe nor effective.
This year, Chapman said, the group hopes to use about $6,500 to help 30 families, just a fraction of those who call for help.
“It’s a little,” she said, “but if you’re one of those families, it’s everything.”
A big expense
Heating fuel prices — both propane and oil — have gone up slightly over the last year.
Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office said on average statewide, propane was $3.06 per gallon on Dec. 31, with No. 2 heating oil at $3.64 per gallon. The propane price was 35 cents higher at year’s end than in late December 2012. Oil was 10 cents cheaper a year ago.
So, on average, it will cost Mainers who use propane $437 more than last year to heat homes, while oil users will likely pay $108 more.
At current prices, propane users will pay an average of $452 more than oil users to heat their home annually.
Propane is in shorter supply than usual this year, driving up the price for those who use it as primary or back-up heat.
According to LePage’s office, the supply from Canada has been curtailed because of rail closures stemming from last July’s train explosing in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just over the Maine border.
In a press release last week, he also said that last week’s accident in North Dakota involving a train carrying crude oil could also have an impact on the supply and more propane than usual has been sent to dry cops in other parts of the country that have had a higher than normal amount of rain and few outside haulers are available to come to the state.
“Because of these factors, propane inventories are 25 percent lower than normal in Maine,” the press relese said.
When LePage declared a limited state of emergency for Maine in early December, it allowed fuel truck delivery workers to put in more hours to try to meet the demand.
Companies are taking advantage of the leeway, according to Deanna Sherman, vice president of energy division at Dead River Company, which employs more than 1,000 workers in northern New England.
Under LePage’s order, some drivers are putting in more than 70 hours a week, Sherman said.
She said the company is taking precautions to ensure that individual drivers are not working so many hours that it compromises safety.
But the demand is huge, she said.
“We are able to serve our own customers,” she said. “We’ll take care of who we can, but we have to prioritize our own customers.”
Sherman said that sometimes a driver responding to an emergency call can create other emergencies down the line because the driver may be forced to leave a route to get to the emergency. Since routes are planned for efficiency, serving that one unscheduled customer could take hours and prevent another six or eight deliveries.
“That is exacerbating the entire situation,” she said. “It bottlenecks the entire delivery process.”
Another fuel vendor, Cash Fuel in Waterville, got backed up when its only delivery truck broke down, manager Josh Marx said.
“My phone’s ringing off the hook right now,” he said. “We have a lot of customers that are hanging on. Hopefully, we’ll be back up and running next week.”
Sherman said customers can help themselves and others by making sure drivers can deliver fuel to their homes efficiently, including clearing the driveway enough for the delivery truck, as well as clearing a path to the propane tank and oil spout.
“If everyone works together, we can do more deliveries in a day,” she said.
Crisis reveals problems
Wheeler, of CN Brown, has been in the industry for 25 years.
Behind the scenes, he said, subtle changes have made it more difficult for fuel vendors to deliver to customers.
New federal regulations have made it more difficult to hire qualified drivers, while at the same time customers are demanding more deliveries with less notice.
The current explosion of demand is something he hasn’t seen since the 1990s, he said, but those periods were easier to manage than this crisis.
Back then, he said, a higher proportion of customers signed up with an automatic delivery program, which made their needs easy to predict and schedule.
“A lot of people, for years now, have had a just-in-time mentality for heating oil,” he said.
He said there are also more people operating on strained budgets who ask for relatively small deliveries of 75 or 100 gallons.
The net result is a call for more deliveries on a more erratic timetable, which can add up to a scheduling nightmare for oil companies.
Wheeler said there have been also changes in licensing requirements for commercial drivers that have made it more difficult for fuel vendors, and other industries, to hire qualified people.
To drive a vehicle carrying hazardous materials, including fuel, drivers must have a clean driving record and a clean criminal history, pass a stringent physical exam and also undergo random drug and alcohol testing.
“There’s not a lot of guys out there who are willing to go through all that,” he said.
Finally, he said, the ice, snow and cold have worsened driving conditions and made home oil tanks less accessible for drivers.
“You’ve got snow, you’ve got ice on the road. The heating oil drivers are out there,” he said. “These guys are working their hearts out all the time.”
Meanwhile, many customers, like Waterville’s LeClair, make do if they can afford to, buying kerosene — which sells for a little more than $4 a gallon in central Maine — to put in the oil tank until the delivery can arrive.