I think there is something funny going on with some home heating oil price protection plans.
I am not generally a huge supporter of class action law suits, but if there are any enterprising lawyers out there, this one might be worthwhile. I am concerned about the impact of higher heating oil prices on lower income households in the Northeast and would be very upset if anybody was behaving in an opportunistic way to make that situation worse.
Let us be clear that I am not accusing any company of inappropriate behavior, but let me sketch what I have noticed. I will not name any companies at this point. Interestingly, I described the potential for this problem earlier this spring to my colleague at Tuck, and I said I would wait to see what happened. Sure enough, it happened.
Here is my personal situation. Last summer, I contracted to buy around 800 gallons of heating oil at a fixed price. I spread the payments across 11 months, paying a fixed and constant amount each month. The fixed price I contracted for was around $3.20 per gallon.
Now this winter, although very snowy, was not all that cold. Thus, by March and April, I had not yet used up all 800 gallons that I had contracted for.
That made me wonder what would happen if I did not use all 800 gallons.
A check that came in the mail today answered my question: the 140-odd gallons left on my contract as of May 30 were worth, at my contracted price of $3.20, about $450. My heating oil company sent me that refund check today.
Now I would have preferred to get the 140 gallons, which at current heating oil prices ($4.85 per gallon!) would be worth about $680. And, on the other side of the transaction, my delivery company clearly prefers to pay me the cash value of my contract.
I suppose that if I read the fine print, somewhere in the contract I signed last year, it would say that the company could pay in cash (using old prices of course) for any unused gallons.
It is not the settlement in cash that concerns me. It is a more subtle opportunity for opportunistic behavior.
I had noticed back in mid spring that my tank was low and that I had not received any deliveries for some time. Therein lies the possible problem. The heating oil company clearly knew that heating oil prices in the open market were way above last year's fixed prices. Therefore, every gallon they could avoid delivering would mean roughly $1.65 (4.85-$3.20=$1.65) of profit (or avoided expense, however you want to view it). In fact, at one point during this year, I had to call my company because they had not delivered for some time and I was on empty.
So what if the heating oil companies were purposely letting customers' tanks run low, thereby minimizing the amount of oil they would have to buy at open market prices and deliver at the old, lower fixed price? That would smack of opportunism, would it not? (Don't be fooled into thinking that the companies would not care, since they might have bought enough oil to cover expected deliveries early in the year at lower prices as well. They well might have locked in prices, but that doesn't mean that they still don't want to part with oil that is worth $1.65 more per gallon than they are going to get for it!)
If I were a lawyer, I would be interested in seeing if delivery policies were changed in the springtime. Maybe some low income households should get an even bigger check than they might already have received. Or at least, the delivery company could deliver the fuel that was contracted for so that low income households don't start the fall with an empty tank. That is what I have right now -- an empty tank and a check for $450 instead of a tank with 140 gallons of fuel oil worth $680. Not exactly peanuts.