*William Murray cowrote this piece.
In a part of the country where a popular motto is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,” it pays to have contingency plans in place. So as New Englanders shake off the sub-zero temperatures that resulted from two back-to-back Arctic blasts, what insight can be gleaned?
In Maine, state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is using the recent bitter temperatures to point out inconsistencies with propane gas delivery laws that affect many Mainers.
Currently, because heating systems are often configured differently enough to risk leaks and explosions, state law prohibits fuel companies from filling each other’s fuel tanks without added liability. Companies, therefore, will not fill tanks they do not own unless they conduct lengthy safety checks of the customer’s propane heating system. This generally makes sense.
But during extreme weather, the situation is different. With propane at a premium and homeowners quickly running out of heat, fuel company personnel are stretched thin. Thanks to the extraordinary demand for fuel during the most recent cold snap, fuel companies that lacked the capacity to conduct the required safety checks refused to fill any tanks they didn’t own. Others ran out of supplies and left customers in the cold. Governors of most New England states were quick to sign emergency proclamations waiving federal hours-of-service requirements for home heating-fuel delivery drivers. But it doesn’t help to give drivers extra flexibility to deliver fuel when they have no fuel to deliver.
Diamond hopes to advance a legislative fix that will allow propane companies to fill tanks without legal risk during weather emergencies. It is definitely worth the Legislature’s time in Augusta to investigate ways to lower the economic barriers to energy delivery. Legal restrictions on emergency deliveries are a classic example of an unintended market barrier and represent only one of many hurdles to effective energy delivery with which Maine and other northeastern consumers must contend.
While the impetus for reform may have been emergency calls from constituents who were low on propane and heating oil during the particularly chilly stretch, the legislative fix would mean more consistent deliveries for homeowners when they need heat the most. With below-average temperatures expected to return by early February across much of the northern half of the United States, it would be nice to see action from Maine’s legislature sooner rather than later.
According to Jamie Py, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, “In an emergency situation (the lifting of legal restrictions) could come in handy. It is a practical way to address the problem.”
What’s more, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in January that average household expenditures for all major home heating fuels will rise this winter because of expected colder weather and higher energy costs. The last two mild winters have lulled consumers throughout New England into complacency regarding their high energy costs. But in comparison to the rest of the country, New Englanders’ energy costs are much higher.
A study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found residents in the Northeast pay 44 percent more than the national average for electricity and 29 percent more for natural gas. Industrial users of electricity pay 60 percent more than the national average.
With energy costs on the rise, and highly unpredictable winter weather patterns occurring more regularly, Sen. Diamond’s bill is a commonsense measure in an appropriate climate.
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