A1 A1
top story
Monadnock Region should expect increased energy bills this winter

Across the country, skyrocketing energy rates have been a hot topic as the weather gets colder — and the Monadnock Region won’t be spared the impact.

Liberty Utilities customers in Keene can expect to see a 56 percent increase in their bills this winter, according to Emily Burnett, a company spokeswoman. For example, a household that paid about $830 for gas last winter — the average among local Liberty customers — likely will pay close to $1,300 this year.

“The increase is [due] to the cost of the energy we supply to customers,” Burnett wrote in an email to The Sentinel. “We purchase on the energy market and pass those costs directly to customers without a markup in price.”

Several factors play into the hike, including Hurricane Ida’s detrimental impact on gas production in August and higher demand for natural gas abroad, according to a web page Liberty has dedicated to the rate changes. The Northeast as a whole regularly sees higher energy rates than the rest of the country, Burnett added, due to the limited gas infrastructure in the region.

Liberty, which serves 1,250 commercial and residential customers in Keene, uses a propane and air system in the city, which is similar to natural gas, Burnett said. Liberty customers across the rest of the state use natural gas, and those customers can expect bills to be 55 percent higher than last winter.

Increased gas prices affect more than just heating costs — the fuel is also used to generate electricity, meaning those bills are also expected to increase, the N.H. Bulletin reported. That contributes to demand, especially after an unusually warm summer called for more electricity generation, according to Liberty.

Eversource, another utility provider in the Monadnock Region, won’t know exactly how customers will be impacted until later this year, when it will file its proposed rate changes with the state Public Utilities Commission, according to spokesman William Hinkle.

While some households may be able to improve their homes’ heating efficiency to lower bills, low-income families are most likely to feel the sting of the price hikes, according to the N.H. Bulletin. The dramatic jump in energy costs is arriving at a time when the U.S. Census Bureau reports nearly one in five households in New Hampshire struggling to manage expenses.

Across the country, energy bills are expected to reach extraordinary heights this winter. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, those who heat their homes with propane will see the biggest jump in winter-to-winter bills, with an average increase of 54 percent nationwide. The soaring energy prices are driven by a greater global demand and lower U.S. inventory, resulting in the highest prices the country has seen in a decade. Heating oil bills are expected to rise 43 percent on average from last year, natural gas 30 percent and electricity 6 percent.

In 2019, the largest share of Granite Staters — 42 percent — heated their homes with fuel oil, according to the EIA.

Dead River Co., which provides oil to customers in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, did not disclose how much customers could expect to see bills increase when asked by The Sentinel.

“As we emerge out of the Covid lockdown, energy demand is returning faster than supply, causing prices to increase,” said Lisa Morrissette, director of marketing and communications, in an email. “Energy providers must reflect these increased costs in the price to their customers.”

New Englanders’ wallets could find some comfort, however, in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s prediction of a warmer-than-average winter across much of the eastern U.S.

Liberty and Dead River Co. both offer payment plans to help customers manage bills. And there are other services locally and across the state to address consumers’ energy needs.

Southwestern Community Services, a community action organization serving Cheshire and Sullivan counties, provides fuel assistance to about 4,500 clients each year, according to Terra Rogers, program director of employment and energy.

Rogers said she hasn’t heard much concern about energy prices so far. There are many factors besides high energy prices that play into people’s decisions to apply for fuel assistance, she noted, and the organization typically sees more applications during colder winters.

“We’re certainly here if anybody is needing help,” Rogers said, adding that people may not realize they qualify for fuel assistance, which is federally funded through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

“I definitely try to encourage as many people to reach out to us to apply as possible,” she said.

Similarly, Keene’s human services manager, Natalie Darcy, said that while a few applications are already in for the city’s fuel assistance program, there hasn’t been much buzz about the projected price increases.

Meanwhile, last month, U.S. Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen, both D-N.H., joined other congressional leaders in calling for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to release funds for LIHEAP ”as swiftly and at the highest level possible,” according to an Oct. 18 news release from Shaheen’s office.

“As the main federal program that helps low-income households and seniors with their energy bills, LIHEAP provides critical assistance during the cold winter and hot summer months,” the senators wrote in a letter to the Biden administration. “... In addition, millions of low-income families, including seniors, are facing new and severe financial hardship due to the coronavirus, making the assistance provided through LIHEAP more important than ever.”

Mark Brochu of Keene rakes the leaves from his yard toward the sidewalk on Beaver Street, while listening to the blues, on Thursday evening, in time for leaf collection this coming Monday. Brochu moved to Keene from Rochester over the summer, and this is his first fall in the area.

Local faith leaders urge people to get vaccine

As COVID-19 vaccine mandates become more prevalent among area and national employers, they’ve prompted some staff members to file for religious or medical exemptions.

But at least 12 local faith leaders are publicly urging people to get inoculated.

In a letter sent to The Sentinel and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript on Oct. 30, the leaders — of a variety of local Christian and Jewish faith communities — argue that the vaccine is a “gift” and that “choosing to be vaccinated is a way of demonstrating our concern and care for our neighbors.” (See letter on page A6.)

Two of those who signed it, Rev. Cynthia Bagley of the United Church of Christ in Keene and Ven. Derek Scalia of St. James Episcopal Church in Keene, said they’ve been encouraging their congregations for months to get vaccinated.

But amid increased talk of religious exemptions and polarization nationwide around the shots, Scalia said the leaders felt they needed to extend their message beyond the pulpit.

“I’ve been very clear, as well as many of the faith leaders on that letter, that we support all measures that stop the spread of this virus, and we recognize that the vaccine is our greatest gift in preventing further spread of this virus and preserving life,” he said.

And while not speaking for others who signed the letter, both he and Bagley said that in most cases, they don’t agree with people applying for religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine, saying this doesn’t reflect God’s commandment to love our neighbors.

There will likely be an uptick in these exemption requests in coming months, with all businesses nationwide with 100 or more employees required to show all their workers are fully vaccinated or that they will submit to weekly testing and mandatory masking by Jan. 4, according to the latest guidance Thursday from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“As clergy, we’re listening with different ears, and we’re hearing all this talk about, ‘Well, we’re going to have a vaccine mandate, unless, of course, you have a religious exemption.’ ... We kept saying, ‘What is that biblical exemption?’ because we can’t find it. The only one we can find is love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” Bagley said.

The allowance for exemptions stems from the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements because of “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

A religious belief doesn’t have to be recognized by an organized religion, and it can be new, unusual or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others,” according to rules laid out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But, the request can’t be based solely on political or social ideas.

The request, additionally, does not require any sort of approval from a faith leader.

In turn, employers are put in the position of determining what constitutes true religious misgivings.

Many religious denominations have no objections to the COVID-19 vaccines. However, one of the biggest objections to vaccines, on religious grounds, is that those that used fetal cells in research, testing or production should not be put into people’s bodies.

Fetal cell lines developed decades ago in the laboratory were used to develop and test the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, public health officials have said. This is a common practice in pharmaceutical research, such as with over-the-counter drugs, like Tylenol, ibuprofen and Tums.

Scalia argued that those applying for an exemption should be in a “really crucial point in one’s spiritual life.”

“When they are seeking something like this, to be exempt from a vaccine, how are their actions going to be loving to their neighbors?” he said. “... There’s an obligation they have as people of faith ... that it’s not about their personal self interest. That’s not the faith. The faith is about deep connection to one another, so much that we’re willing to sacrifice our own interests for the love of our neighbor.”

Bagley compared those applying for religious exemptions to the old story of the man whose house is flooding.

As the water rises, the story says, various people try to rescue him, but the man turns them all away, saying God will save him. When he reaches Heaven, the man asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” to which God replies, “Well, I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter.”

“I think this is a perfect parable for where we are. We’ve been sent three miracles in the form of vaccines ... and what are you saying? You’re still waiting for God to tap you individually on the shoulder and say, ‘Now I’m going to spare you?’ ” Bagley said. “It’s just craziness to me. The vaccine is the gift. What more do you want?”

NH joins other GOP-led states in suing over federal vaccine mandate

CONCORD — New Hampshire has joined 10 other Republican-led states in a lawsuit challenging the Biden Administration’s new rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to have a vaccinated workforce or implement weekly COVID-19 testing and mask requirements.

In announcing the suit, N.H. Attorney General John Formella reiterated that COVID vaccines are “safe and effective,” and encouraged every eligible state resident to get one.

Still, Formella said, the Biden Administration’s new vaccine requirement was “illegal and would impose significant burdens on New Hampshire businesses and their employees.”

This lawsuit asks a federal judge to halt the implementation of the federal vaccine mandate. The guidelines for the mandate, set through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, give a Jan. 4 deadline for workers to be vaccinated.

Failure to comply could trigger penalties against businesses of nearly $14,000 per violation.

This suit, like another one New Hampshire joined last week challenging mandates for government contractors, was filed in a federal court in Missouri. That state’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, is leading the case.

“The federal government should not be forcing private employers to require their employees to get vaccinated or foot the cost to test those employees,” Schmitt said.

Plaintiffs in the case also include a Missouri trailer manufacturer, Sioux Falls Catholic Schools, the Christian Employers Alliance, and the Home School Legal Defense Association.

While New Hampshire’s COVID-19 vaccination rate has essentially stalled through the fall, vaccines — and vaccine mandates — have proven a volatile political issue in recent months.

When President Joe Biden announced the federal vaccine mandate in September, Gov. Chris Sununu and other Republicans immediately promised to fight it. GOP leaders in the N.H. House called an outdoor press conference to oppose the mandate. That quickly devolved into a shouting match on the Statehouse plaza between lawmakers and the anti-vaccine activists Republicans had presumed would be their allies.

“You are yelling at the wrong people,” House Speaker Sherman Packard bellowed at the protestors at the time.

Last month, some of those same vaccine and vaccine mandate opponents helped spur the Republican majority on New Hampshire’s Executive Council to reject $27 million in federal funding to boost vaccination efforts.

A major concern for the Republican councilors who voted down the funding as a bloc was the fear — which both Formella and Sununu said was unfounded — that taking the money would obligate the state to enforce federal vaccine mandates.

State health officials say not taking the money will slow New Hampshire’s effort to vaccinate children aged 5 to 11 who became eligible for shots earlier this week.

In a statement Friday, Sununu described COVID-19 vaccines as “the most effective tool we have to protect ourselves and our community from this virus.”

But he also reiterated his full support for New Hampshire joining the lawsuit.

“As the head of state, I recognize the limitations of government in mandating this personal medical decision,” Sununu said.