STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The low price of oil has affected many parts of the economy, not least the market for home-heating oil. Northeastern homeowners burn a lot of it during the winter, and they're paying prices that are about one-third of what they were paying in 2011. Still, not everybody's happy. Getting a heating-oil contract is a little bit like playing poker. Bet on the wrong price, and it will cost you. Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck reports.
NINA KECK, BYLINE: At Keyser Energy in Proctor, Vt., Barb Corliss handles customer service. The company provides heating fuel to about 5,000 customers, and Corliss says it's been a crazy ride.
BARB CORLISS: Four-dollar-a-gallon oil down to $1.799 today. It's been a ride for not only the staff, the drivers, but the customers as well.
KECK: While many customers pay as they go, others prefer to lock in a price for the entire year. Still others pay a bit more per gallon for a sliding scale that caps how high prices go while allowing for price drops.
CORLISS: It's speculation. People are innate gamblers by nature.
KECK: But after watching all the news about volatile oil prices, many of those gamblers are tired of the pricing game. On a recent subzero morning, a Keyser fuel truck backed into Jackie Fetterolf's driveway. Fetterolf is one of many who bet wrong on heating oil and locked in a price last June when it was 23 percent more.
JACKIE FETTEROLF: It's very frustrating because it's like you plan it and, you know, years past it's always gone up. And now it doesn't, and now you kind of go, is this really worth doing?
KECK: While fixed contracts can be great when oil prices are climbing, Matt Cota of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association says unless you bought sliding scale insurance, there are no rebates when fuel drops.
MATT COTA: Any time a heating fuel dealer offers their customer a fixed price or a pre-buy contract, that they have to, within 7 days, go secure that fuel from their wholesale supplier.
KECK: In other words, if a customer buys a fuel contract for $700 in July, that dealer has a week go out and buy $700 worth of fuel. With oil prices at 10 year lows, the popularity of fixed-price contracts has declined. At Keyser Energy, nearly half of customers had been using them. Now it's about a quarter. Keyser Energy's Rob Oberg makes another delivery and says even for people with fixed contracts, he's not hearing many complains because prices are so low.
ROB OBERG: Most of the people I run into are actually rather happy, so, you know, we're actually kind of lucking out pretty good right now.
KECK: A few blocks away, Rhoda Grace says, even though she locked in a price last summer, she's taking it in stride.
RHODA GRACE: You know, I feel safe anyways. If the price happens to sky-rocket, I'm covered.
KECK: Experts don't expect fuel prices to climb this winter, but come summer, all bets are off. And fuel buyers of the Northeast will have to decide if they feel lucky when it comes time to heat their homes.
For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vt.
INSKEEP: Now I've got a Clint Eastwood line bouncing around in my head - you feel lucky?
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