Amid all the gloom and doom about the national economy, consumers did get one gift this holiday season – low gas prices.

Prices in many parts of the country, including Maine, have dropped below $2 a gallon, after topping $4 a gallon in most places this spring and summer.

Fluctuating gas prices are nothing new, but what is new is the way consumers seem to be responding. While in the past, consumers have returned to their gas-guzzling ways when prices have plummeted, it appears people are being a bit more prudent this time.

It’s unclear exactly why this time is different. Perhaps, after getting beaten up by prices at the pumps repeatedly, consumers are finally starting to get a little streetwise, or maybe, because of the poor economy people are simply spending less in general. In Maine, anticipating a cold and expensive winter, many have already invested in wood stoves and pellet stoves. Those people aren’t likely to revert back to oil heat now that prices have cooled off.

Whatever the reason, this latest trend is a good sign. While we enjoy these low prices, we shouldn’t celebrate by embracing our old habits, and lawmakers should not be lulled into complacency.

As Maine legislators reconvene this month, their biggest challenge will be filling a $150 million budget gap created by falling state revenues due to the poor economy. While solving that problem is clearly going to be a preoccupation, it’s important not to forget another crisis the state had been expecting this winter: Many people were unsure how they were going to afford heating their homes.

Maine is more dependent on oil than most states. Not only do we use it to run our cars, but also a disproportionate number of us use it to heat our homes. If the state proceeds with the status quo, Mainers will be at the mercy of the next oil price hike. And, if history is any indication, it’s not a question of if that hike will come, but when.

Finding money to invest in programs that ensure homes are using energy efficiently will be as difficult as it has ever been this year, but it’s more important than ever. It’s also important to continue exploring alternatives for generating energy, like wind and solar power. The zoning in many Maine communities still restricts homeowners from using wind turbines to generate power. That needs to change.

The habits of consumers need to continue to change, as well. Although gas consumption is down, our habits are not drastically different from what they were a few years ago. A few more of us now have wood stoves and more fuel-efficient cars, but most of us still rely on oil for heat and choose the convenience of our cars over a public bus or a bike.

This holiday season, we need to remember the high prices from the spring and summer, because this is one gift we’ll likely have to return in the coming year.

Brendan Moran, editor


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