Prices for heating oil, propane, and cord wood are all up substantially from last winter — especially heating oil — which could mean higher bills this winter, a challenging prospect for Vermonters already feeling the effects of inflation in other areas of their lives. The 2022 energy crunch, the first in this country since two major supply challenges in the 1970s, comes despite the fact that,in part because of the controversial fracking boom, America is now the world’s top oil producer and is a net exporter of petroleum and gas. A series of events has led to the current situation, experts say: the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic rebound, reduced investment in oil and gas production after some fracking companies went bankrupt, and Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, which pushed global oil and gas prices up sharply. The price for a barrel of oil reached $120 per barrel on June 6, although it has been coming down recently and stood at $90.50 on August 8, up from $68 a year earlier.According to Steve “Freff” Hedges, a long-time employee of Stove and Flag Works now working in the Montpelier store, the demand for wood stoves this year has been “manic” due to higher oil prices. “We’ve probably seen a twofold increase in wood stove and pellet stove sales in the past year,” he said. Although the store has some stoves in stock, many wood stove deliveries are scheduled a month out, and some people will be waiting until January to get the wood stoves they want, he said. Supply chain issues over the past two years have been an issue for the industry, and labor shortages at stove manufacturers have also been a problem, Hedges said. In addition to switching fuels, another way to compensate for high prices is to insulate and air seal one’s home. Efficiency Vermont is offering a timely rebate of up to 75% for weatherization work. For details, go to www.efficiencyvermont.com/rebates. At today’s prices, insulating will pay for itself even faster than in recent years. In September a year ago, the average retail price for a gallon of heating oil in Vermont was $2.77, and this month it is $4.73, according to data presented on the Vermont Department of Public Service website August 8. That’s a 71% increase. Average retail propane prices rose a more modest 17% to $3.20 per gallon over the same time period, according to the same website. Piped natural gas is a cheaper way to heat, but in Vermont it is only available in certain parts of Addison, Franklin, and Chittenden counties, with the gas pumped there from Canada. Some fossil fuel customers like to pre-buy their oil or propane, locking in a known price, although this requires paying a season’s energy bill in advance. However, a number of local energy firms have been slow to offer a pre-buy price this year because of the volatility of the market. For example, East Montpelier-based Alco Energy Products typically offers its customers pre-buy prices in the early summer, but this year it held off. But Brian Phillips, owner of the company, said in early August that he expected to have a pre-buy price by mid-August. Some fuel companies were charging cash customers $6 per gallon in May, Phillips said, “but prices have come down in the last month or so.” His firm’s cash prices in early August were $4.399 per gallon for heating oil and $2.999 for propane customers who heat their homes with propane (propane prices vary according to annual usage). “Propane prices are a bit steadier than oil,” he said. Compared with last year’s Alco pre-buy prices, propane is up about 50 cents per gallon, while heating oil is up more than $1.50, he said. Some other companies have offered pre-buy rates. Trono Fuels of Barre had an oil pre-buy price of $4.45 per gallon recently; the offer expired August 15, although they might allow latecomers to get in on the offer. The Energy Co-op of Vermont, based in Colchester, is offering a pre-buy deal through October; the price may vary, but it was recently $4.59 per gallon for heating oil. Gillespie Fuels of Northfield had a pre-buy propane price of $3.52 per gallon that expired July 25, but they also said they might let some more customers buy at that price. Their pre-buy heating oil price was $4.96 per gallon. Gillespie noted that cash buyers can get 10 cents off per gallon if they pay within 10 days.