Northeast To Be Home Heating Oil Hell?

Worker delivers home heating oil, over 100 dollar bill, partial graphic
Despite recent drop in crude oil, the cost of home heating oil averages $3.13 a gallon. The steep price tag is putting unprecedented pressure on consumers and the companies that deliver oil in the Northeast, CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian reports.

For 85-year-old Constance Copes, the cold hard truth of heating oil prices has suddenly hit home. She'll pay 60 percent more per gallon than last year.

"I'm not looking forward to the winter too much," she says. "$4.59, that's not easy."

Oil dealer Jim Meehan is also feeling pain at the pump. Last week, he paid about $12,000 to fill his tanker; and come winter he'll do it three times a day.

"Everybody's concerned about the price of oil and ways to afford it. It's just mind-boggling, because last year our typical price was $2.50 a gallon, and now it's almost doubled," Meehan says.

That's grim news in New England, where eight million families (50 percent of the households) heat their homes with oil, which is now averaging $4 a gallon at retail.

And it's not just oil. Natural gas is up more than 25 percent from last year and electricty rates have nearly doubled.

"It's really scary. This is really going to devastate the middle class in ways we're just understanding," says Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

Eugene Guilford represents 400 of Connecticut's mostly "mom and pop" oil dealers. Many, he says, are now caught for the first time in a credit squeeze -- stuck between soaring oil prices and banks leary of loaning the millions of dollars needed to buy oil wholesale.

How many of your dealers could you potentially lose, Keteyian asks.

"I could easily see that 25 or 30 heating oil retailers would not be able to make it through the next heating season, without any question" says Guilford.

In fact, in the last year, at least 15 oil dealers in six states have gone belly up, leaving tens of thousands of customers high and dry.

In March, F and S Oil, a Connecticut company, shut down virtually overnight after collecting more than $3 million from families who pre-paid for their oil.

That total included $5,000 from Constance Copes, a loyal F and S customer for 20 years.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has received more than 3, 000 complaints against oil dealers. He's investigating three, and is suing F&S for failing to live up to its promise.

"There's a sense of real confusion, as well as anxiety and apprehension about whether people are going to be able to heat their homes and who to trust to give them advice, let alone deliver the product," Blumenthal says.

Meaning that in the heat of summer, Constance Copes and thousands like her have had to pay twice for oil long before a winter of discontent arrives.