Nicholas Apodiakos, who takes care of his ailing 94-year-old mother in their home, sorted through this winter’s heating oil bills: a whopping $1,703 only four months into the season.
“We go through oil like water,” Apodiakos said recently.
Apodiakos, 55, does not work because he is caring for mother, Rose, full time. Her health complications — diabetes, cholesterol, frequent seizures, and painful bedsores, to name a few — make her more sensitive to chilly weather. Apodiakos eyes his climbing energy bill in Newton with fear.
“How are you supposed to live?” Apodiakos said. “We can’t. It’s impossible.”
Massachusetts residents are facing staggering oil and gas bills this winter. While demand for heating oil and other petroleum products has rebounded, crude oil production still hasn’t reached pre-COVID levels. Moreover, fears of a disruption to global energy supplies from the Russian invasion of Ukraine have sent prices even higher in recent days; on Thursday, after Russia launched its military assault, oil prices soared over $100 a barrel.
Natural gas prices are also up significantly, driven by some of the same factors affecting oil.
Amid periods of extreme cold this winter, some households are being forced to choose between warmth and other basic needs.
“We’ve seen prices go up over the years, but the difference-maker here is the pandemic,” said John Drew, chief executive of human services nonprofit Action for Boston Community Development. “It’s a miserable time if you don’t have the money to survive.”
In Massachusetts, heating costs have risen across the board. At close to $4.00 a gallon, heating oil is 40 percent above retail prices of a year ago, according to the most recent data from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. Prices for natural gas for home heating, which are regulated by the state, are up around 25 percent from this time last year for customers of National Grid and about 20 percent for Eversource customers, according to state rate data.
The number of National Grid customers in Massachusetts in its arrears management, forgiveness, and payment programs has more than doubled from January 2020 to January 2022, according to a company spokesman.
National Grid also asked the state’s Department of Public Utilities to raise its gas rate for March and April by about 7 cents because of higher supply costs.
About half of the state’s households use natural gas for heating, and 26 percent use heating oil or other fuel oils.
“There’s anxiety,” said Mary Knittle, energy director of Worcester Community Action Council. “Our clients just want some security.”
The agencies responsible for distributing fuel assistance in Massachusetts have been handling more applications with less manpower. The antipoverty agency Community Action Pioneer Valley in Greenfield has seen a 25 percent increase in first-time applications but has fewer employees to process them.
“Just like every McDonald’s and every other store out there, we’ve been challenged with making sure we have enough staff now,” said Peter Wingate, the group’s energy director.
Local, state, and federal officials are scrambling to give constituents help covering heating expenses. For people in financial hardship, Massachusetts has a moratorium during winter on gas utility shutoffs for nonpayment that expires on March 15.
Senator Ed Markey filed legislation in January to increase the annual funding for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides financial help to low-income families, to $40 billion. If passed, the bill would also expand eligibility beyond households at or under 60 percent of the state median income, or $78,751 for a family of four.
Even if more people qualify for assistance, Knittle said, many don’t even know help is available. This fiscal year, the LIHEAP program got a major boost in aid from the coronavirus stimulus package enacted last March; Massachusetts received $307.5 million, its largest-ever allotment.
About 18 percent of the state’s income-eligible population received LIHEAP funding in 2020, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
“You may have heard your whole life that there’s a program out there called fuel assistance, but you might never think whether you can apply for it,” Knittle said.
With the pandemic, Drew said agencies have had to go the extra mile to spread awareness about available resources.
“It’s hard to reach people, but we’re out there every day,” Drew said, “talking to media, going on social media, fliers, anything to let eligible people know in this pandemic.”
When Nora Morales’s heating bills became too much, she scoured the Internet until she found Action for Boston Community Development.
Morales, who can’t work because of a disability, provides for her two daughters with help from Section 8, Social Security, and SNAP assistance. Though she keeps the temperature at 68 degrees, she said her home is poorly insulated, making it hard to keep warm and triggering their asthma and allergies.
If it gets too cold, “we have a hard time breathing and have to use the rescue inhalers,” Morales said. “If it gets really bad, we sometimes get bronchitis or pneumonia.”
This year, Massachusetts families can receive up to $1,650 in fuel assistance through the LIHEAP program, a $440 bump from last winter. But higher bills this year means federal aid money can only go so far. Apodiakos, the Newton resident caring for his mother full time, said he wasn’t able to pay off his heating oil bills from last year until January.
Money is still available. Knittle said families seeking assistance should contact the agency representing their city or town. Residents can find an agency listing by town on the state website.
There are other ways to find savings, too. Last month, state officials approved major reforms to Mass Save, Massachusetts’s primary energy efficiency program, offering homeowners and renters significant assistance for insulation and weatherization projects, as well as energy efficient appliances. Mass Save also offers incentives to help customers switch from fossil fuel-powered heaters to electric heat pumps. The level of assistance available depends on income, but many improvements are free for low-income residents.
“We’re going to help people save money on their bills, and save the planet,” Knittle added.
Every degree counts when it comes to saving on heating bills, experts say. Setting the thermostat to 68 degrees or even lower while at home and awake and 60 while away or sleeping can save households 10 percent, according to the US Department of Energy.