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Sue Bush
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Gas Prices: "This Is Getting Ugly"

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Saturday, August 20, 2005

Vehicles gas up on Saturday afternoon
Fuel prices are whacking the wallets of numerous small businesses, and the situation is becoming extremely serious, according to several Northern Berkshire and Southern Vermont business owners.

Getting Ugly

“It’s crazy,” said Harry Breese of Pownal, Vt. “It’s gotten so bad you can’t afford to go to work. This is getting ugly.”

Breese owns and operates a landscaping/snowplowing business. Over a seven-week span, his fuel costs to operate lawnmowers and similar equipment jumped $200 per month, from about $500 to $700.

And prices are still climbing.

David Dence, also of Pownal, who operates the Greater Heights tree service company, echoed Breese’s sentiments.

“It’s tough,” said Dence. “I’ve gotten a memo [from a fuel supplier] that said diesel fuel could be $3 a gallon by January.”

With fuel prices rising, some customers are scaling back planned work projects, and competition in the industry is strong, Dence noted.

“So at a time when we should be raising our prices, we can’t,” he said.

Countryside Landscaping Services owner Gerard St. Hilaire said he has increased some fees. Lawn-mowing services were raised by $2 per cut, and delivery fees have also increased by $2, St. Hilaire said.

The increases are considered modest when compared to the rising cost of fuel, he said.

“We can’t really go up much on the clients, and they have been very understanding [about the $2 price increase],” he said. “Believe it or not, we’re eating a lot of it [price hikes]. We have gone into diesel as much as possible. Diesel costs more but you get many more miles per gallon.”

Costly Winter Looming

St. Hilaire said he is also investigating other potentially cost-saving steps, such as propane-powered lawnmowers. He acknowledged that snowplowing costs may rise for the upcoming winter, and also said that some driveways have been dropped from the client roster because of the time and fuel needed to clear them.

Breese said that trying to set a price for snowplowing has landed him in a petroleum-laced pickle. Fuel costs are not stabilizing and calculating the cost of the service is becoming a chance shot in the dark, he said.

The price at the pumps at the Route 7, Pownal, Stewart's Shoppe on Aug. 20.
“I have no idea how it’s going to work,” Breese said. “I don’t know how to charge a person. With these prices, I can’t charge somebody with a 75-foot driveway $30.”

Like St. Hilaire, Breese has been investigating the fuel situation. He’s angered, Breese said, by what he termed “dead quiet” from most legislators about the problem.

“There’s one excuse after another for these prices,” he said. “It’s always ‘oh, something went wrong at a refinery,’ or some speculation about a terrorist attack at an oilfield. To me, with an issue like this, it seems very quiet in Washington [D.C.]. This is a very big issue affecting millions of people, for so much quiet. Why is that?”

Breese noted that vehicle fuel isn’t the only price spiking; heating costs for all fuels are expected to rocket upward this winter, and even off-road fuel prices are climbing. Senior citizens may be in for many cold awakenings this year, Breese said.

“For the people living in mobile homes with outside fuel tanks, they pretty much use kerosene [for heat],” he said. “And kerosene is high, $2.40, $2.50 per gallon. You take a senior citizen living in one of the mobile home parks, living in a fixed income, how are they ever going to keep those places warm?”

People may feel as though they are hostages to gas pump prices, but Breese said that a nation-wide, one-day boycott of the pumps could generate some real results.

Pass By The Pump

“For one day, even a Sunday, just don’t buy gas,” he said. “This is something we can do. We can organize. There are some very well-informed people out there who could get something going, and I think that people may be getting fed up enough to go along with it for one day. We can take this country back.”

At the Stewart’s Shoppe in Pownal, a woman who said she was from Louisiana sat eating an ice cream cone. She asked not to be identified “because I’m not a local or anything” but did agree that Breese had a good idea.

“I’d do it for two days,” she said. “I’d stop buying gas for a Saturday and a Sunday. And let me tell you, where I come from in Louisiana, gas is $2.20 a gallon because we are close to a refinery. You are a lot higher up here.”

Soybeans: Alternative Meat Source Could Fill Tanks

Breese has also been researching biodiesel fuel, which is being manufactured as an alternative to diesel fuel. Part of biodiesel’s appeal is its’ ingredients and its’ ability to replace “petrodiesel” as well as be transported and sold using existing technology and infrastructure.

In Minnesota, three biodiesel manufacturing firms, using soybeans as a main fuel component, are producing the fuel. Among the trio is a farmers’ cooperative that began manufacturing commercial-grade biodiesel in late 2004. The move was precipitated by a Minnesota state law approved in 2002 that required all state-sold diesel fuel to contain 2 percent biodiesel. The law took effect on July 1, and was the first of its' kind passed in the nation.

Helping the fuel gain ground is a federal energy bill recently signed by President George Bush. The bill hosts federal tax incentives that have the potential to decrease biodiesel expenses and jump-start demand for renewable resource fuels.

Home-Grown Fuel?

Breese noted that Minnesota is part of the nation’s “grain belt,” but added that a cooperative biodiesel venture could be locally launched. Soy beans and canola, a source of vegetable oil also used in the renewable-resource fuel, can be grown in the Northeast, and local cultivation would eliminate one of the fuel’s drawbacks, the price of transport, Breese said.

Numerous Internet Web sites state that currently, where available, the price of biodiesel is slightly higher than petroleum-based diesel fuel. Part of the reason, Breese said, is because the trucks hauling the fuel are, for the most part, burning traditionally-made fuels.

“Maybe we could do this locally,” he said. “We have farmland. Maybe a co-op could be formed to raise the soybean, the canola, that kind of stuff right here. We could mill it, press it, right here.”

Breese noted that the time is right to plan such a venture, because any crops would need to be planted in the spring, cultivated throughout the summer, and harvested in the fall.

Used vegetable oil can also be used to produce biodiesel. According to published news reports, an Iowa man has been manufacturing biodiesel using a specialized machine and methanol, lye, and used cooking oil acquired from restaurants.

Out of Patience with Out-of-Wallet

Countryside Landscaping owner Gerard St. Hilaire said the company will "weather" high fuel prices.

St. Hilaire said that his company will survive the fuel price spikes.

“We’ll never go out of business but this will affect our bottom line by $20,000 to $30,000,” he said. “Our employees will get paid and we’ll weather this.”

But commuters may be beginning to shed a “what’s our choice” attitude that has, up to now, been prevalent.

Michelle Stacy and Lida Watters, who both said that they drive 50 miles round trip to get back and forth from work, also said that fuel prices have become much more than a nuisance.

Stacy said that earlier this month, she and about seven companions drove to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a family-oriented vacation. Stacy said the group traveled in a SUV – often denounced publicly by environmentalists and consumer reporters as a “gas-guzzler”- but pointed out that driving two vehicles would have required at least the same of amount of fuel as the lone SUV.

“When we got there on a Sunday night, gas was $2.19 a gallon,” Stacy said. “When we left that Friday [five days later] the price was $2.50 per gallon. I think that it’s ridiculous.”

Watters said that she gasses up almost every day because she sees gas prices rise on an almost-daily basis.

“The other day I was at the gas station and I said to the attendant ‘Did I say ‘regular [87 octane],’ and the attendant said ‘Don’t worry, nobody can afford anything else,’” Watters said. “It’s getting so you can’t afford to get to work.”

You Do the Math

And Breese offered a bit of math homework for consumers. Noting the amount of goods and products delivered by both long-haul and short-trip truckers, Breese presented the following:

“People should go to their computers and calculators and figure this out. A truck loads up in Bennington [Vt.] and is headed to Florida. Let’s say the truck has a 125-gallon tank and is paying $2.60 per gallon for fuel. The truck probably gets 3 to 5 miles per loaded gallon. Figure that out, and then think about this; you haven’t even begun to pay for the tires, the truck drivers, the tolls, the [truck] maintenance. Then think about this: Somebody’s going to have to pay for all that. Who do you think that is?”

Additional information about biodiesel fuel is available at the and Internet Web sites. Information may also be acquired by entering “biodiesel” into a computer search engine.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at or at 802-823-9367.
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