January 21, 2020

Legislature orders probe into high cost of gas, oil

AUGUSTA — With temperatures dipping and heating costs rising, the state House and Senate passed a joint order Tuesday that directs the Legislature’s Utilities Committee to investigate the high cost of gas and fuel oil.

The idea is to identify who benefits and who doesn’t when heating oil prices flirt with $2 a gallon.

One legislator suggested that a damage lawsuit should be considered against any profiteering oil company.

The order directed the committee to conduct hearings to determine whether any legislation is needed to come before the current session in an effort to remedy the situation.

It wasn’t clear Tuesday when the hearings would occur.

Rep. Benjamin D. Dudley, D-Portland, said many of his constituents, especially island residents, find their health and safety endangered by high energy costs. “We are at the mercy of decisions made far beyond our borders, in Washington, D.C., and in the Mideast,” he said.

Meanwhile, no place in Maine is more affected by high energy costs than Washington County, Rep. Albion D. Goodwin, D-Pembroke, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Many Washington County residents routinely drive 70 miles one way daily to jobs at the Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill in Baileyville, Goodwin noted. He said the state should consider lawsuits against any oil companies found to be profiteering.

At a press conference Tuesday in the Hall of Flags, legislators also called for a task force to find ways to lower heating costs for the state’s 38,000 low-income families served by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.

Rep. Randall L. Berry, D-Livermore, said a $10 million windfall from the federal government approved last week has eliminated the need for a state appropriation of $4.5 million for LIHEAP. But it also underscored the uncertainty of a situation in which the state has no clear idea what funding, if any, will be coming from Washington for fuel assistance.

“We can’t count on Washington year after year,” Berry said. “By studying the issue, we can see how best to use our current resources and learn what we can as a state do to address the heating needs of Maine’s low-income households.”

The task force would include oil dealers, the public advocate, the director of the Maine State Housing Authority, and representatives of the state’s community action program, which administers weatherization programs. The task force would look at how the state uses resources and what additional resources and policies could improve the situation.

“If we can find a better way to avoid scrambling for additional funding in a year like this, we are in a better position,” Berry said. “Ensuring cooperation between complementary programs like the weatherization program, LIHEAP and the federal government is just good government.”

Dana Totten, acting director of the Maine State Housing Authority, said the state needs to develop a more predictable system for providing the heating assistance.

Public Advocate Steven Ward applauded the study, since it has been 10 years since the system was studied. “Ten years is too long without study,” he said.

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