So far, conservation measures have moderated the East Coast's massive "freeze siege." Since 1972, US homeowners have cut their heating oil use by more than 20 percent, reports Lee Schipper, energy scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California. Much of this drop can be credited to the East, and especially to New England, where heating oil is most in use.
And conservation accounted for half of the 10 percent drop in home oil use during the 1979-80 season, according to a survey of dealers by the Fuel Oil and Oil Heat and Solar Systems trade journal.
Other advances in energy conservation, such as more efficient electrical appliances and steam-plant cogeneration (electricity and heat at the same time), may prevent the energy distribution system in the Northeastern United States from being stretched beyond its limits.
Still, tales of winter hardship are pouring in from Florida citrus fields to Cape Cod beach houses as Arctic air wafts southward, bringing a string of near-record-low temperatures:
* One immediate sign is higher fish prices, as ice and cold prevent boats from venturing seaward. "I haven't handled lobster since Christmas," says New York fish marketer John Demane, whose other prices have increased about 40 percent in recent weeks.
* An estimated 17 to 20 percent of Florida's orange crop already has been damaged due to mercury readings in the low teens. This compares with a 25 percent loss during a freeze in 1977. But the weather forecast is gloomy: more frost.
* One New Englander arrived home this week to find his heating oil tank unexpectedly empty and the house "as cold as the north side of a stone wall in starlight." He put on three sweaters, lit a three-log fire, silently thanked himself for putting insulation in last fall, and settled into a three-hour wait for the oil man. The nation's energy dilemma hit home when his emergency fill up revealed heating oil prices had jumped 15 percent just in thelast two months, up to $1.07 a gallon. Since 1978, the price has more than doubled.
"No fuel, even wood, is predictable anymore," the oil man said.
One Massachusetts firm, Colonial Gas Energy System, misgauged supplies, causing many schools and businesses to shut down temporarily on Cape Cod and in the industrial city of Lowell.
Widespread homeowner conversion of heating systems in the Northeast from oil to cheaper natural gas in the past two years could be pushing a few gas companies to capacity. "We're breaking all sorts of records for demand," says a spokesman for Brooklyn Union Gas, one of many such firms that have gained conversions. Brooklyn Union has helped supplement supplies for other gas-shy utilities in the Northeast. The firm itself does not face a shortage because of "aggressive planning," the spokesman said.
Ironically, New England heating oil dealers launched an advertising campaign last year warning potential converts to natural gas that supplies and prices could be uncertain in the future, using the slogan "The more you know about gas, the more comfortable you'll feel with oil heat." More than 70,000 New England homes have switched in the last two years.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) reports the nation's primary stocks of heating oil are roughly equal to last year's supplies. Unusual demand during this cold snap has been offset by increased conservation and reductions in demand due to the economic recession, API reports. Last winter, the US Department of Energy encouraged refiners to boost heating oil production. This season refineries were at 79 percent last week, reports the National Oil Jobbers Council.
"I think refiners will keep on making home fuel right up to the first of April," says National Petroleum Refiners Association spokesman Herb Bruch.
Some shortages are being reported for other fuels:
Massachusetts officials made special trips to Pennsylvania coal mines to speed new shispments when the supply failed to meet new demand from homeowners who recently switched to burning the chestnut-size black chunks for heat. Ice flows in some Northeastern rivers, such as the St. Regis, have clogged a few hydroelectric power dams run by the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation in Syracuse , N.Y. Bottled propane allocations were cut 10 percent to some customers of Dixie Pipeline Company of Atlanta after demand increased. One propane distributor, Par Gas Corporation of Waldorf, Md., reports spot shortages beginning to surface.
Some Southern utilities, such as Florida Power & Light, revived up generators to meet record demand from home electric heaters.Spot blackouts have occurred during peak demand for Florida Power, which serves 2.2 million customers -- about half the state. "This is the most serious weather that we have seen in a long time," said a utility spokesman.
Federal and state officials, meanwhile, braced themselves for increased demand for fuel aid to poor people.