A portable camp heater glows orange in Vance Emery and Michelle Durrell-Emery’s dining room in Calais, a few blocks from the Canadian border. The heater runs on a small tank of propane in the bushes outside, piped in through a hole sealed with tape in the window above.
“I don’t want to say archaic,” Emery said, “but I mean, literally, this is what you do up the camp.”
This family of seven also has an oil-fired furnace in the cellar, but has gone to great lengths to avoid using oil this winter after getting just one partial refill late last year.
“It was $400, and that was for one week. We burned it all in one week,” said Durrell-Emery, standing in her kitchen in late March. “I’m like, ‘we can’t do this.’ ” The family didn’t pay to get the tank refilled again this season.
Three of every five Maine households keep warm in cold winters with some form of fuel oil. That’s more than any other state.
Oil is a powerful heat source, but its costs can be high and volatile. Heavy reliance on it has implications for family budgets, human health, local economies and the worldwide climate crisis.
As the rest of the state’s economy shrinks its carbon footprint in an effort to meet aggressive emissions-cutting goals, residential emissions — driven largely by oil use — are flat or growing. In the meantime, the cost of oil is feeling increasingly untenable for some Mainers.
Last fall, the war in Ukraine pushed New England oil prices to record highs, near $6 a gallon. Demand for emergency heating aid spiked, and Maine lawmakers rushed to issue relief funds.
Residents are increasingly looking to cut back on oil use with alternatives such as electric heat pumps that are a focus of state climate policy, new kinds of wood-based fuels seen as a climate solution by Maine oil companies, or even just intensive home weatherization.
Each change comes with challenges: rising electric bills, long waits for contractors, high up-front costs even with generous state rebates, and potential environmental trade-offs.
But some scientists and energy experts see Maine’s oil transition as an opportunity that could transform lives in more ways than one — saving money and creating more resilient homes, while helping to mitigate a future of rising seas and worsening storms.
“Heating fuel is entwined throughout our lives and our economy. Any time you start to unweave a thread like that, it gets complicated,” said Kathleen Meil, the senior policy director at Maine Conservation Voters and co-chair of the housing arm of the state Climate Council.
But, she said, “it’s absolutely something we can do. … There’s a way that we can make strides on all of those fronts at the same time.”
Why Maine, why oil?
Maine’s reliance on oil has its roots in geography. The average winter temperature across the state is in the low 20s, and the heating season is long, with fall and spring averages in the 40s.
Before the Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century, Maine kept warm solely with wood. Coal came next, delivered through chutes that can still be seen on the exteriors of older buildings, and was burned in stoves that required stoking and tending much like a wood stove.
The first oil boilers were introduced in the early 1900s, and a coal shortage during World War I helped them gain favor, according to research by the heating industry historian Bernard Nagengast.
“Oil is a great kind of source for energy,” said MIT energy economist Chris Knittel, who directs the school’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy and Research, founded during the energy crisis of the 1970s. “What we want to see in an energy product is that it’s dense, right? So it has a lot of energy per unit. And … of course, in the 1800s, we were using a lot of wood and coal to heat homes, and relative to coal, oil was cleaner.”
Oil also has logistical advantages, he said — easier to extract than coal and easier to move than gas. And it can share its distribution system with the diesel fuel that powers factories and vehicles. (No. 2 heating oil is basically the same substance as diesel, just regulated separately.)
“What we don’t like about oil is the local pollution and the global pollution,” Knittel said. “That’s why we’re trying to move off of oil, at least for climate change reasons.”
Other states that use a lot of heating oil per capita (Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut) or by volume (New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) have increasingly turned to natural or fossil gas as a relatively lower-emissions fuel option. Pipelines to deliver gas to homes in these and other states proliferated after World War II — but never reached far into Maine.
Maine’s sprawling geography and low population density have squashed perennial efforts to build out gas much beyond the southern tip of the state. Other states that have become more dependent on it as an oil alternative have smaller areas or closer access to gas supplies.
The bedrock embedded in Maine’s land is also an obstacle, said Michael Stoddard, the executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust, the quasi-state agency that provides rebates for home energy improvements.
“Our state has got a lot of granite all around, so when you want to lay natural gas pipelines under the ground to run through all our communities, you might have to deal with all that granite,” Stoddard said. “It was a lot easier and ultimately cheaper to use heating oil, which you could import in a tanker and then ship around to communities in tanker trucks.”
Local impacts, exported profits
The businesses that operate those tanker trucks and repair people’s boilers have become a huge part of local economies, which has helped cement Maine’s reliance on oil, said Charles Rudelitch, the executive director of Sunrise County Economic Council in Washington County.
A 2018 analysis commissioned by the Maine Energy Marketers Association, the trade group that represents these companies, found they account directly for nearly 5,000 jobs and $250 million in annual earnings across the state, with an even greater indirect economic impact.
“My furnace breaks at 2 o’clock in the morning, someone will come over and fix it, where that is not true for almost all of the competing technologies,” Rudelitch said. “But we have this huge countervailing negative factor of just a lot of money leaving the region to buy the oil itself.”
These local companies sell a product produced far out of state — brought in on trains and ships, as locals say, “from away.” Federal data shows New England gets most of its fuel oil from refineries on the Texas and Louisiana coasts, with Canada supplying most imported fuel oil.
State policymakers have long seen this dependence as a problem, said Gordon Weil, the former head of Maine’s now-defunct Office of Energy Resources. He began the job in the late 1970s, amid peaking global oil production and a crisis of unstable supply from the Middle East.
“People (were) standing in lines at gas stations because there just wasn’t enough oil. … We knew we were at the mercy of the world market,” Weil said. “All we could do in Maine was get out from under. How do I buy less of this? … That was the motivation — it was very clear.”
The environmental benefits of the transition were just as compelling, he said, and politically popular for a tourism-heavy state that treasures its natural beauty. Weil wrote a three-part plan to get Maine off oil around 1979: increasing home energy efficiency, replacing oil-fired power plants with nuclear and hydropower, and encouraging more use of wood and electricity for home heat.
The energy crisis did lead to huge change, including the creation of key federal heating aid and weatherization assistance programs that Maine and other states still rely upon. Then-President Jimmy Carter famously encouraged folks to put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat.
The crisis also helped rekindle innovation by companies that make heating systems, after some slow post-war decades, according to Nagengast, the historian: “A renewed focus on energy efficiency revived after the ‘oil shocks’ of the 1970s,” he wrote in a 2019 industry journal article. “Then the heating industry responded with ‘reinventing the wheel’ of high-efficiency furnaces and boilers using modern technology that was unavailable 50 years earlier.”
But in Maine, progress was slower than Weil hoped. The state’s oil distributors worked to earn political favor by emphasizing their local economic contributions, he said.
Weil said traditional electric heat was cheap to build as an oil alternative, but he argued that those savings were not passed on to consumers by utilities beholden to shareholders. (A spokeswoman for Versant Power disputes this.) Plus it could feel risky to heat only with electricity in a state that sees frequent power outages during winter storms.
As Maine looks to redouble its efforts to move off oil, Weil thinks this time will be different.
“Environmental sensitivity is much, much higher than it was,” said Weil, who has been a columnist for The Maine Monitor and other Maine publications. “Global warming is real … and it’s producing results that change things. … We’re responsible, we have to do something about it. I think that realization has gotten through to a lot of people where it wasn’t before.”
Chris Altvater walks along a rocky beach in Sipayik, or Pleasant Point, a small Downeast peninsula that’s home to one of the Passamaquoddy tribe’s reservations. Altvater, a tribal elder, has seen beach erosion accelerating on his community’s shores as the climate warms and sea levels rise.
“I’m sure… it’s going away a lot faster,” he said. “The erosion is a lot more intense now.”
The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other part of the world’s oceans, and the state expects to see 1.5 to 3 feet of sea level rise by mid-century. Worsening storm surges, sunny-day tidal flooding and other impacts are already affecting coastal communities.
These and other threats drove the state to adopt its statutory goal of cutting emissions 80% over 1990 levels by 2050, part of a movement in governments across the globe aimed at slowing temperature increases. And the data is clear on what must change to get there.
Transportation is the biggest contributor to Maine’s planet-warming emissions — but that and other sectors’ footprints are starting to shrink in a way that residential emissions, mostly driven by petroleum use, are not.
Maine’s 2.86 million metric tons of residential carbon dioxide emissions in 2019 were equivalent to burning more than 15,000 railcars’ worth of coal, or to running about seven natural gas-fired power plants for a year, according to an Environmental Protection Agency calculator. For state policymakers, it made decreasing home oil use a clear goal in the fight against climate change.
“As we thought about how to get the state on a continuing trajectory for reduced emissions, there was just sort of no choice but to look at how we use fossil fuels to heat our buildings,” said Hannah Pingree, co-chair of the state Climate Council.
It means that individuals’ home heating choices do add up as the state tries to decarbonize. For his part, Altvater keeps warm at home with a 1970s-era wood stove, using firewood cut from his property and a free annual delivery through the tribe. Wood carries its own pollution and climate concerns (we’ll get into those later in this series) but is the cheapest heating fuel in Maine.
Like the Emery family, Altvater avoids using his oil tank, which he had installed for convenience when his now-grown daughter was a baby and he worked at the nearby school. Now that he’s retired, it’s been at least five years since his last oil top-up.
“I would say I probably have like a quarter of a tank (left), but I didn’t use one drop of oil this year,” he said with a note of pride.
Altvater keeps a big metal pot on top of the wood stove to make hot water without relying on propane. Plastic wrap helps seal some windows, and small solar lights charge on the sills to cut back on electric bills that, he said, are still a burden. He does his best to conserve energy, both to save money and do his small part to help mitigate the effects of rising seas on his home.
“I’m hoping that because I’m reducing, or trying to use as little as possible, it helps,” he said.
‘The phones don’t stop ringing’
But small cutbacks and efforts at efficiency only go so far. Heating oil remains a big financial burden for those who use it in low-income communities like Sipayik, said Margaret Altvater (Chris’ grand-niece), who works in the tribal heating aid office down the road.
As state and federal funds allow, the tribe can arrange emergency deliveries of 100 gallons of oil for residents with no heat and may be choosing between fuel and groceries. Demand for aid remained constant in late March, with oil prices still higher than they have been in years.
“The phones, they don’t stop ringing. People are, all day, every day, running out,” Margaret Altvater said. “We have some of our oil vendors on speed dial — like one of them, I text and I say, ‘We need this person, this person needs oil, too, can you go here as well?'”
Low-income New England families tend to spend at least 10% of their income on energy, more than any other part of the country, according to a 2020 study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Data analysis by MIT shows that Maine counties have the highest risk in the region of having both high energy expenditures and high poverty rates.
But alternatives to oil can also have high costs. Electric baseboard systems, for example, are the most expensive way to heat a home. New England has some of the highest electric rates in the country, and Maine just approved rate hikes of $20 to $30 a month for most customers.
“It’s unnerving to see (these costs) shift by so much so quickly,” said Rudelitch, with the Sunrise County Economic Council. “It makes fuel switching feel very risky. You just don’t know what the price is going to look like.”
Electricity costs, like those of heating oil, are tied to global fossil fuel markets. Despite rapid growth in renewable energy, the New England electric grid is largely dependent on fossil gas. The same goes for other fuel sources to varying degrees — even firewood is cut and processed with machinery that relies on diesel.
As a former Washington County legal aid attorney, Rudelitch saw the “huge burden” of this on low-income families firsthand. “I definitely had many clients who essentially lived in a small part of their house during the coldest weather, around a space heating appliance — a wood stove, a propane heater, a pellet stove,” he said. “They were heating a small section of the house that had the plumbing and letting a lot of the house essentially remain unheated.”
This is essentially the approach that the Emery family takes in Calais. Besides the propane heaters by the windows, they burn large candles under terracotta pots to warm the toilets in cold bathrooms, and carry small electric space heaters from room to room.
“We’ve had some rough winters and I’ve had to learn to adapt,” Vance Emery said. “I’m not paying thousands of dollars a month for oil.”
The Emerys can afford to supplement with electric heat because they happen to live somewhere special — in the territory of the very small utility on Maine’s eastern border that buys its electricity at much cheaper rates from mostly nuclear-powered New Brunswick, Canada.
Maine is pushing hard to replace oil with a much lower-cost source of electric heat, however. The state climate plan centers on a goal for adopting tens of thousands of electric heat pumps, which Efficiency Maine says can provide heating, cooling and hot water up to nearly three times as efficiently — and thus, cheaply — versus electric baseboards, and at a lower cost than oil.
Even with generous state rebates, these devices can still be unaffordable for those without disposable income. So advocates are getting creative to help people invest in saving money and shrinking their carbon footprints, hoping to convince more Mainers to break away from oil.
Note: This story has been updated to attribute the assertion related to utilities’ role in the cost of electric resistance heating.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series, where we’ll explore the benefits and challenges of electric heat pumps as the state’s chosen solution to Maine’s costly oil dependence.
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This series is supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship.