BOSTON (State House News Service) – Massachusetts is waiting to hear back from the Biden administration about what the federal government can do “to enhance our ability to get through the winter, both in terms of having the power available to heat their homes but also hoping to deal with some of the price issues,” Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday.
A top energy official in the Baker administration this week put residents on notice that the cost of heating their homes and keeping the lights on is likely to skyrocket here this winter as the price of natural gas soars. Judy Chang, undersecretary of energy and climate solutions in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said that the Baker administration has “been working with our federal partners in developing a plan for New England’s winter.”
After visiting the Big E in West Springfield on Thursday, the governor gave more detail on his team’s work with the federal government and other states to prepare for an expensive winter.
“Ever since the war in the Ukraine broke out, this has been a high concern for every cold weather place in the world, basically. The governors in New England got together and started talking about this in the summer. We actually wrote a letter to the federal government, we wrote to the Biden administration and said we are very worried about both price and availability of thermal, which is basically heat, whatever the source of it is this winter,” Baker said.
Baker said the governors asked the White House to do a number of things as winter nears and have been “involved in some pretty active discussions” about what the federal government might be able to do to help.
“We’re still waiting for their response on that,” the governor said. “But this is something that literally all of the New England governors have been both talking about and pushing the feds on since July.”
Pressure is mounting for state lawmakers to do something about the situation as well. MASSCAP, the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, sent a letter Wednesday to legislative leaders, members of the conference committee working on the stalled-out economic development bill and the House Ways and Means Committee, which is reviewing a supplemental budget bill, to ask that lawmakers include at least $20 million to supplement federal fuel assistance in whichever bill advances.
“In light of the information we have gathered from our member Community Action Agencies in the past 24 hours that provide fuel assistance to thousands of households in need, we are hopeful that the legislature will allocate at least $20 million and up to $50 million which would help vulnerable people [avoid] the terrible choices between heating and eating or between heating and medicine,” Executive Director Joe Diamond said.
The economic development bill has been in limbo since the House and Senate ended formal sessions Aug. 1 without agreeing on a bill. Top legislators have said they plan to tackle at least some of the topics covered by the economic development bill without proposing a timeline, but a supplemental budget could advance in the next month or so to allow the comptroller to close the books on the budget year that ended June 30.
Diamond said that up to 160,000 Massachusetts households a year get support from fuel assistance programs. Though fuel prices generally rise in November and December, he said that home heating oil prices are up 66 percent over the same time last year and are more than double the price from two years ago.
Secretary of State William Galvin also weighed in on energy prices this week, proposing that the Legislature create a home heating oil reserve of up to $50 million to help middle and low-income residents and said the fact that Baker is leaving the corner office in early January underscores the importance of acting before the heating season even begins.
“With the transition in the Governor’s office coming during the coldest month of the year, we need to be planning for this potential crisis now,” he said.
Galvin’s proposal is that the Legislature create a reserve under the control of the Treasury and that the state use the money in that account “to purchase its own supply of home heating oil, or alternatively, to offer guarantees to Massachusetts fuel wholesalers and financial assistance to those struggling to heat their homes.”
“If prices remain high, this could be catastrophic for the working poor and middle class families who are already struggling to keep up with all of the other issues caused by inflation,” Galvin said. “Purchasing oil right now is a risk that many private companies aren’t willing to take, but it’s a risk the state needs to take to ensure our residents can survive the winter.”