Maine and Saudi Arabia have nothing in common, save one thing: An utter dependence on oil, with the price of it having a drastic effect on their residents and economies.

Eighty percent of Maine’s oldest-in-the-nation housing stock is powered by oil-burning furnaces. And the average price of a gallon of heating fuel now is $3.50, according to the latest survey by the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security.

With winter’s nip coming into the air, the prospect of filling those furnaces is becoming much more real — and much more distressing — for thousands of Maine families who receive heating subsidies through the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

LIHEAP is arguably one of Maine’s most important social safety nets, yet it is also the one — this year — that is most in jeopardy. It’s expected that Maine’s LIHEAP allocation will be cut by an astounding 60 percent this year — from $55 million to $23 million.

This cut will have a dramatic and dangerous effect on the security of many Maine families to stay warm this winter. It will also put pressure on other outlets, such as homeless and warming shelters, to accommodate a possible influx of Mainers in need.

Needless to say, then, this situation is untenable. Although it’s a preferred Maine pastime to complain about the weather, it is beyond the control of any regulator or legislator, priest or preacher. It will be cold here during the winter months.

And the heat — from whatever source — must be turned on.

Yet, given the state of the national debt, continuing to pour millions into LIHEAP only to see it burned by an inflated oil market also makes little sense. LIHEAP is unsustainable, unless something is done to spark efficiency and diversity in Maine’s heating sources.

That $23 million now allocated to Maine would go much further if it complemented other programs that forced efficiencies in heating sources and heating fuels. Weatherization is also part of this, but frankly, not the efficiency game-changer it was once thought to be.

Maine is poised to do good things. The establishment of programs like tax incentives for efficiency, the Efficiency Maine Trust, and past weatherization grants has laid the groundwork for changing the dynamic of burning dollars in the furnace.

More must be done, however. The governor’s avowed support of natural gas, for example, is one path. Further support of the state’s still-fledgling alternative wood heating (i.e., not cordwood) industry is another.

Most needed, however, is a change in consumer behavior and attitude. In 2008, when heating oil spiked, alternatives became popular. When the price crashed in the economic collapse, consumers simply reverted to what was easy.

There must be a push to make consumers do what is difficult, expensive, and altogether important for Maine’s economy and public safety during the winter months.

For now, the LIHEAP money and the sacrifice of Maine residents will get us through the long, dark, cold months ahead.

Over the longer term, however, this dynamic must be changed. It will require a diligent effort by government, business and citizens to do it.

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