Paying the price -- Instability rattles heating oil market

"Looking at the winter heating season this year, it's really a head-scratcher because it is so unclear which way prices are going to go," Mihailovich said.

"We used to have a dip in prices once we made it past Labor Day and the driving season ended, but a drop like this in October is very unusual. I'm sure it's not completely unrelated to the political campaigns because we're coming up on Election Day, but it still leaves things quite unpredictable.

"Oil isn't really a simple supply and demand commodity anymore," said Mihailovich. "Prices are largely being driven by speculators who are reacting to world events and trying to anticipate what the next trend is going to be. They are not bidding prices up based on what it cost them to buy the oil they have, but what it will cost to buy the oil they are going to get in the future."

Customers who locked in prices during the summer have the advantage of avoiding the wild price fluctuations that have plagued consumers in previous winters. But many decided not to sign up because world oil prices were then near their highest levels in history and it didn't look like such a bargain.

The seasonal dynamic in world markets has made it tougher for local dealers to offer long-term contracts which lock-in prices for an entire season. "We are a strictly cash on delivery company," said Helderberg's Miller of his small, family-run firm. "We don't want to be responsible for managing a customer's family budget. They can do that better for themselves. We just give them the best deal we can whenever they need oil.

"Right now we are at $2.32 a gallon, but that could change any day," Miller added.

SIDEBAR: What people are saying -- Politics, profits prevail

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