By Pamela Ferdinand
The Washington Post FLORIDA, Mass. -- There’s no mistaking this mountaintop hamlet for that other Florida of stucco pastels, palm trees and balmy salt air. Here in the northern Berkshires, a region of dipping temperatures where one waterway is even called the Cold River, early frost has nipped the gold and red hues from the tips of some trees and immense stacks of cut firewood spill out of sheds and lean against homes. Yes as chilly as it gets, Mae Embry, a kindly grandmother in her seventies who has lived in the same four-room bungalow for half a century, will not be lighting any fires to keep warm this winter. She relies instead on heating oil and piles on heavy wool socks and bulky coats rather than push her thermostat much beyond 70 degrees and expend precious energy. As any presidential candidate will tell you, New England is clearly ground zero in the national drama that is the heating oil crisis. More people in these parts use oil to heat their homes than anywhere else in the nation, including and estimated 82 percent of the population in Maine and 60 percent in New Hampshire. Winter is more severe, and it takes longer and costs more to import oil to this distant end of the fuel distribution network. The federal Energy Information Administration today suggested American consumers should brace for a 25 percent increase in heating oil and natural gas prices, with a larger increase if temperatures are lower than usual. Many people fear that this region remains particularly vulnerable with winter approaching and Northeast oil inventories at historically -- and, some say, dangerously -- low level, down 60 percent compared with last year. For Embry, it takes year-round $50 installments out of her monthly $400 income to fill her oil tank. When prices spiraled past $2 per gallon during the Northeast cold snap of last winter, she received government assistance. Now, with prices again on the rise and more people scrambling for financial aid, she has no idea what she will be able to afford. “Oh God, I don’t know what is going to happen,” Embry said, sitting in a kitchen sweetly decorated with framed prayers and collector China cups. “I already conserve as much as I possibly can.” Worst case scenarios are not hard for many other here to imagine at a time when even seasoned firewood, the most basic heating source, is scarce and selling at a premium. Picture Dec. 23, 2000, two days before Christmas, proposed Massachusetts Rep. John J. Binienda (D), chairman of the state House Committee on Energy: “The temperature hits five below zero and every company in the state starts scrambling to get oil tanks and those tanks are empty. The ice-cutters haven’t cut the channels through, and all of a sudden you can’t catch up. “It’s like a prescription for disaster,” he said. President Clinton earlier this year authorized a 2-million-barrel reserve for the Northeast, in addition to tapping the federal strategic petroleum oil reserve. But those specially designated stocks remain in New Jersey and Connecticut, and it is not clear what conditions -- price or supply, among other factors -- will trigger their release. Nor are New Englanders convinced the additional oil will make any difference, if it reaches them at all. “I really question whether that product will make it further north than New Haven in a time of need, given the amount of heating oil that can be consumed in one day in a major city,” said Michael Ferrante, president of the Massachusetts Oil Heat Counsel, a statewide trade association. The heating oil crisis has united regional lawmakers not otherwise known for cooperation. After meeting with Energy Secretary Bill Richardson recently, legislators continued to lobby for an increase in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program to $1.65 billion from $1.1 billion and for early release of those funds to consumers. Members of a New England heating fuel task force also have been discussing ways to monitor oil supplies and keep transportation routes such as shipping lanes open during heavy weather. The popular message is “conserve, conserve, conserve.” But individually, northern tier states are also taking other tacks, from posting Internet sites with up-to-date process and financing new storage facilities to considering legislation requiring dealers to stockpile oil. For instance, Maine formed a heating fuel SWAT team expected to release its energy plan this month. The state also expanded access to its low-income energy assistance program, which ash received applications form more than 30,000 local households and is expected to offer average benefits of $350, compared with $488 last year. New Hampshire asked suppliers to report inventory levels every two weeks and is considering a kerosene reserve. “We want to be careful not to interfere with the market, but we want to make sure there is a fuel in place for those who need it this winter,” said Merelise O’Connor, deputy directory of the Governor’s Office of Energy and Community Services. And here in Massachusetts, where 40 percent of the population relies on heating oil, Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) this week proposed a $32 million home heating oil plan, including $12 million for fuel assistance to low-income households and funds to encourage wholesalers to increase supplies. The state is also planning to hire a heating oil consultant. All this is happening far way from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, one of the coldest regions in the nation, where snow is expected this weekend and wintry mornings already chill Christi Taylor and her family of four. Taylor, 29, and her husband together earn less than $50,000 but enough to keep them from qualifying for fuel assistance. They choose to buy oil in $100 increments, so other bill slide and the thermostat in their mobile home stays under 66 degrees. “When you start jacking the price up to $2 a gallon, we’re going to be in trouble,” Taylor said. “I want to be able to live without wondering where my heat’s coming from.” AS long as that doesn’t happen, consumers have an absolute right to believe the political system has failed them, said former U.S. representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, chairman of Boston-based Citizens Energy Corp. Kennedy called for establishing a minimum inventory standard for heating oil, along with a small storage fee, in the same way banks must have capital and electricity companies are required to provide certain levels of power. “The only industry that I’m aware of that has no standards and is involve in a basic necessity of life is heating oil,” he said. “It isn’t rocket science.” Robert Moore, senior vice president of the Dead River Co., the largest retailer of petroleum products in northern New England, also forecasts continued volatility in the oil market. But the notion of mandating inventory levels is “ludicrous,” he said, and “a horrible waste of taxpayer money” that would put small dealers out of business. Tony Sangermano is one small dealer who already has suffered. Sangermano, who has been selling oil for 32 years in Jaffrey, N.H., did not cover his prepaid contracts quickly enough last year during the price spike and lost $100,000. Still, he said no customer went unserved. “Last year was the worse I’ve seen it,” he said. “I hope it isn’t as bad this year.” Until she knows for sure, 80-year-old Mary Jo Taylor of New Bedford, Mass., is crocheting lap robes and preparing to dress in multiple sweat shirts to stay warm this winter. Her budget is tight (the last pair of shoes she bought cost $5.99), and she does not switch off the radiators in any of her six rooms for fear they will break. Citizens Energy helped pay for her heating oil last year, and friends and family gave her money for new tires as a birthday present. But by then, it was February, her oil supply had run out, and the price for 100 gallons was $185. “I still need tires,” she sighed.