Q&A: Roberta Fagan

Though the smallest state in the union, Rhode Island is not to be overlooked when it comes to energy policy discussion, or really any conversation regarding America’s deliverable fuels and home heating providers. That’s because the state is unique not just in size; it is also the only state in the country with a statewide standard for biodiesel/heating oil blending.

And yet, the state’s deliverable fuels industry faces many of the same issues that challenge dealers throughout New England and the greater Northeast, including, of course, seasonal supply constraints. Indeed, some of these issues may create even greater obstacles for Rhode Islanders, as the state’s small size leaves room for fewer available resources, including the ever-important human resources, i.e. the Hazmat-endorsed CDL drivers needed to transport heating oil and propane place to place. It might even be argued that Rhode Island’s deliverable fuels trade is something of a microcosm for the larger industry.

Through it all, one woman has proven herself one of the most invaluable resources for the state’s home comfort providers and a shining example of true dedication and leadership for the entire industry, from trade association executives down to drivers and dispatchers. That woman is none other than Roberta Fagan, Executive Director of the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island (OHI).

Formerly the operations manager at Middletown, RI-based Anchor Fuel, Fagan has worked in the industry since 2005. Since then, she has become a voice for the Rhode Island home comfort business both in the state capital of Providence and on Capitol Hill. Just this past spring, she joined her fellow industry leaders in the New England Fuel Institute (NEFI) as the organization brought members and supporters together for important policy discussions with Congressional leaders and staff during the Petroleum Marketers Association of America’s annual “Day on the Hill” event.

As Newport, RI gears up to once again host the fifth annual Southern New England Energy Conference this September, Oil & Energy spoke with Roberta Fagan about a host of topics, from policymaking to propane marketing to the city’s many lovely attractions.

O&E: We heard a lot of stories this past winter about the ways in which trade associations and their leaders stepped up to help out members in need. However, we didn’t hear about too many other association executives actually getting behind the wheel of a tanker to help out with deliveries! How’d you find yourself in that position this past heating season?

RF: I was asked to be interviewed by a local news channel after two women complained about their fuel oil company not responding to their request for an unscheduled delivery (they were both on automatic delivery). These two women were concerned that they were going to run out of fuel and wanted to fill their tanks even though they had adequate fuel supply/reserve in their tank. I offered to help consumers that were having difficulty reaching their regular delivery company due to phone centers being flooded with calls, and provided the OHI phone number. Within minutes of the story airing, my phone started ringing. Over the course of two days, I fielded at least 100 calls, forwarding their messages to their oil company. Most requests for delivery were fulfilled within 24-48 hours.

One of the OHI member companies expressed that their drivers were doing the best they could to keep up with deliveries, but was concerned about their employees’ wellbeing due to exhaustion, illness, injuries, etc. That is when I offered to help give temporary relief by making deliveries. Although it is not in my job description as the Executive Director, I am the type of person who wants to be a part of the solution and help in crisis situations however I can; so, driving a fuel oil truck making deliveries seemed to be the right thing to do. “Don’t panic” is also one of my mottos. Proactive is always better than reactive, but in this situation immediate “action” was necessary.

The nationwide driver shortage has been a big topic of interest this year. How has that played out in your state, and what does the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island do to help bring more people into the field and get them the necessary training, licensure and certification?

RF: The situation referred to above illuminated the issue here in RI. When speaking to an official from Governor Raimondo’s office, the question, “Why doesn’t a delivery company just hire more drivers when there is spike in demand?” also highlighted the unawareness of the requirements, time, skill and personality that is necessary to obtain a CDL with a Hazmat/Tanker endorsement. The background check, medical card/physical, drug/alcohol testing, theoretical and practical road tests, etc. take at least eight weeks here in RI. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that every individual who gets the proper licensing is ready to get behind the wheel of a tanker truck.

OHI is bringing awareness to policymakers both at the state and federal level about the hurdles our companies are grappling with: redundant requirements that exist, minimum age restrictions, and recruiting quality candidates.

As far as training, OHI offers Hazmat certification classes only at this time. However, we have included an extensive section on driver/technician licensing and certification in our annual member guide this year. This will hopefully help make things a little bit easier for member companies when it comes to putting new drivers in the field.

We are also looking at recruiting opportunities through Vets 2 Techs and the RI Truckers Association and making members aware of resources through the RI Division of Labor and Training.

What, if any, challenges did last winter present that were unique to your state? And how has OHI since addressed them?

RF: Our fuel supplies are waterborne – in other words, petroleum products are transported to RI terminals via marine tanker/barges. In extreme prolonged freezing weather, ice can form on the Narragansett Bay and in the Port of Providence, making it difficult for vessels to enter and leave. Coast Guard icebreaker assets are limited and at times are simply not available. OHI is part of a regional heating season collaborative that discusses and shares information on pressures to the supply chain due to infrastructure, weather or other contributing factors during peak demand periods.

I understand that one of the mailings you recently sent to membership was in collaboration with the Propane Gas Association of New England. Why reach out across “the oil-propane divide?”

RF: Many of the members of OHI are full-service delivery companies that offer heating oil and propane. It makes sense that our two organizations collaborate on projects such as the “Thank you” postcard that was mailed to over 46,000 households in RI.

One issue that’s brought some added attention to your state has been the trucks-only toll that recently went into effect. What can you tell us about this program and how you see it affecting the industry?

RF: The Rhode Works truck tolling program started in June. Two of the 12 tolling gantries are now tolling Class 8 and above trucks. When all gantries are erected and tolling, the unintended consequences could be disruption of interstate commerce. Businesses that normally would have tractor-trailers traveling through RI may divert routes to avoid the tolls.

Another point: approximately 40% of the fuel imported to RI fuel terminals is then trucked/transported to CT and MA. Truck tolling could severely impact the sale of petroleum products at RI fuel terminals. RI’s economy is fragile as is; truck tolling could have far reaching economic ripples that are hard to predict. More information and gantry locations can be accessed on the RI Department of Transportation website: dot.ri.gov/tolling/index.php.

What benefits do you see arising from the state’s move to B5 last year and to 15ppm ULSHO this year?

RF: Studies show that blends of B5 with ULSHO make this advanced fuel the best product that we can offer to our heating oil consumers – for greater efficiency, greater performance, and cleaner burning, all contributing to higher levels of consumer satisfaction, better air quality and overall better quality of life. Our advanced fuel will help RI reach and work in concert with the state’s energy goals to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

What can you tell us about any incentive programs that might currently or later be available for Rhode Island dealers selling Bioheat® fuel?

RF: The mandate requires a 5% minimum. There is no incentive program to encourage greater blends of biodiesel at this time, but we are closely watching the Alternative Energy Credit program in MA and the newly enacted program in CT. There may be opportunity in the future for either an incentive to blend at higher levels, or a change to the existing mandate requiring higher blends.

How has the Upgrade & Save Rhode Island Energy Efficiency and Safety Rebate Program been received by OHI membership, and what is your personal view of the program?

RF: For those companies that are participating in the program, it is considered a “win-win” situation. Consumers are more likely to upgrade and/or replace inefficient/old equipment when there is a rebate to take advantage of. We are in the business of providing comfort to our customers. Upgrade & Save RI is helping our customers gain greater comfort — safe and efficient equipment helps them save money, conserve energy and improve air quality/quality of life.

This issue will be in readers’ hands at SNEEC. As the conference returns to your state this year, what are your plans for the event?

RF: Once again, the program will be offering educational tracks that will be unique and thought provoking to any professional in the energy industry. Additionally, the NORA technical session will be taking place in conjunction with SNEEC, offering technical training over the course of the two days, allowing for technicians to take advantage of these sessions close to home and in the beautiful setting of Newport, RI.

Do you have any helpful hints for SNEEC attendees, or perhaps some off-site attractions you’d encourage visitors to check out while in Newport?

RF: Newport is known as the City by the Sea. There are so many activities to take advantage of: the famous mansions on Bellevue Avenue, charter boat sailing, beautiful beaches, great places to bike along Ocean Drive, and the best seafood restaurants in RI are all steps or a quick ride from the Marriott. Visit discovernewport.com for more information.

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