Western New Yorkers are hurting from unseasonably high oil prices this summer, but we "ain't seen nothing yet" according to Sen. Charles Schumer.
With the price of oil hitting a record high $146 a barrel this week and the price of home heating oil through the roof, Schumer held a phone conference Wednesday afternoon to discuss the impact this will have on heating bills state-wide this winter. He also provided tips, and announced pending legislative initiatives, to ease heating costs for upstate New York homeowners.
Based on current trends, the average New York homeowner can expect to pay between $720 and $1,260 more in heating bills this winter, Schumer said. According to the United States Department of Energy, the price of home heating oil is expected to rise $1.14 per gallon to $4.30 this winter from $3.16 last winter - an average of $720 more. Schumer cautioned the impact could be much worse since the estimate jumped $.14 since June 2008 when the price of home heating oil was anticipated to be $4.16 this winter.
However, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) provided even more dire estimates for upstate New York. NYSERDA anticipates a $2 increase from last winter, jumping from $2.58 per gallon to $4.58 this winter - an average of $1,260 more.
"Whether you look at (U.S. Department of Energy) estimates or NYSERDA estimates, the results are the same," Schumer said. "Too many families across upstate New York will be feeling the heat, but not the warmth this winter."
According to NYSERDA estimates, about 35,000 households use home heating oil in western New York and will pay a total of $44 million more than last year. For the entire upstate New York region, homeowners will pay a total of $573 million more than last year.
Schumer explained everyone is hurt by such drastic increases in the cost to heat one's home, especially the elderly who are on a fixed income.
He then said some relief from the financial burden of high heating costs is available through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP, Schumer explained, is designed to help low income homeowners, especially senior citizens, by providing funds to cover a portion of their heating bills.
"Incidentally, the state that benefits most from LIHEAP is New York," he said, "and that's because we have a lot of people in cold weather."
However, Schumer indicated the primary problem with LIHEAP is under-funding and argued further funding is critical this year. Since the program is administered on a first come-first serve basis, he said many could find themselves smothered by high heating bills or left in the cold.
In response, he and Sen. Bernie Sanders I-VT introduced new legislation to nearly double LIHEAP assistance, Schumer said. The bill would provide an additional $2.5 billion in emergency funding on top of the current $2.6 billion.
Schumer said the bill is expected to go before the Senate by the end of the week or early next week.
"Upstate New Yorkers are already forced to drain their bank accounts paying for gasoline this summer, and now we're going to be hit over the head this winter with home heating oil," he said. "... This year we need to fund (LIHEAP) for two reasons: one, because we want to cover more people and the price is more expensive, and two, because the price has gone up, if you have the same amount of money as last year this year, you have that many fewer people getting money, or people getting a lot less because the price is so much higher."
Schumer provided several tips for New York homeowners to help cut down on heating bills:
n Lock in rates for home heating now, if allowed, in order to avoid future price spikes.
n Purchase a programmable thermostat which lowers the heat when you're not home.
n Get an energy audit in order to make home heating more efficient.
n Visit energystar.gov for more comprehensive tips.
Schumer then responded to questions about developing alternative energy sources as opposed to providing assistance for expensive, existing sources.
He said the demand exists and this bill is designed to address that demand. However, for the long-term, Schumer said he supports tax breaks and other incentives for homeowners seeking alternative, non-oil energy sources such as solar and wind energy as the only solution is a decreased dependency on fossil fuels. He also said he supports increased energy production offshore as well as increased domestic production, and releasing some oil reserves.