Each year, Fuel Oil News’ sister publication NPN Magazine runs a legislative leader award focused on the individuals in the industry who go the extra mile helping their trade associations on legislative and regulation in Washington and the local state house. The purpose of the awards, as stated, is to give the winners much needed recognition for their hard work while at the same time encouraging others in the industry to step up and join the effort.
With all of the work the various associations do, both in Washington and at the state level, just how important is it to have the members involved in the process?
‘Tip O Neill said it best about 35 years ago when he said that all politics is local,” said Gene Guilford, president of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association. ‘Lobbyists and lawyers do not get bills passed nor do they necessarily stop bad bills from passing nearly as effectively as the people who have businesses in the districts represented by public policy officials. That is political science 101. You have to have people on the ground that go to work everyday, employed people pay taxes, build businesses and serve consumers. There’s nothing that can take the place of a highly motivated and articulate spokesperson on behalf of his or her business.”
This year’s winner at the state level was Jamie Lohr, president of Guardian Fuel & Energy Systems headquartered in Westerly, R.I. had a distinctly heating oil-focused background. Further, Lohr was named the 2012 Marketer of the Year by the ICPA.
Randy and Jamie Lohr started Guardian Fuel and Energy Systems, Inc. in 1993. Guardian is a heating oil (bio and conventional) dealership that additionally distributes diesel, biodiesel, gasoline and kerosene. The company does business in both Rhode Island and Connecticut and works with both the ICPA and Oilheat Institute of Rhode Island supporting their legislative initiatives.
Splitting responsibilities within the business has allowed Randy to keep the business running while Jamie has the opportunity, when required and when the legislative fit is appropriate, to represent the industry in both the Connecticut and Rhode Island state houses without causing undue operational strain.
A particular issue of interest and involvement has been the promotion of more ecologically appealing heating oil and specifically working to mandate the use of ultra low sulfur heating oil. A strong environmental focus is close to the hearts of the Lohrs (and is strongly represented among the company’s customer demographics) and is a cornerstone of the company’s branding.
‘My husband and I learned about bio being used as a heating fuel probably about 12 years ago through the Warwick public school system experiment that had been taking place. We began using it in 2006 when it became available to us and had a great experience with them. It was definitely something that we wanted to bring to our customers so we learned as much about it as we could, and we’ve been very happy with it. But what we would really like to do is for our heating fuel to be able to compete with the environmental advantages with natural gas. And really the only way we can move forward with that is to get ultra low sulfur heating oil.”
While this issue is close to the heart of Lohr, it is also an important issue for the heating oil side of the business in the Northeast.
‘The heating oil industry is under attack virtually on a daily basis primarily from environmental interests as a result of high sulfur content of heating oil,” said Guilford. ‘Clearly, anything that we can do that makes a market improvement in the environmental footprint of heating oil allows it to have a future. Here in the Northeast we have already seen the beginnings of a low carbon fuel standard, which hasn’t touched heating oil yet, but it’s heading in that direction. The only opportunity that we have to serve our customers and to remain in business is if we have a better fuel. And we have a good product with ultra low sulfur and biofuel.”
Regionally, New York has already switched to ultra low sulfur heating oil for this season and Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Maine will be making the switch by 2018. The legislative effort is ongoing in Connecticut.
‘Gene (Guilford) asked us to testify because of our experience with bio’we were one of the companies that have used it the longest, we’re going on seven years now. I can put bio heating oil into every gallon we sell and that is great at a 2 percent blender or 5 percent blend or, if I advertise it properly, at a 10 percent blend, but I cannot get the sulfur out unless the legislature demands it. So that was the next step for us to get the heating oil really clean by getting the sulfur out. So I testified for ICPA.”
Lohr first became active when she testified for ICPA over pricing contracts relative to the run up in prices in 2008.
‘We were up there testifying about what happened in the industry and how could dealers like ours that were family businesses, for the most part, how could we guarantee our customers that they wouldn’t get hurt in pricing structures like that, and we couldn’t guarantee that,” said Lohr. ‘I guess at the time we were hoping that the state would not really allow us to sell pricing contracts anymore because it made it tougher for us to compete with each other and that didn’t fly. That was a good one for me to break in with because there was a lot of contention on that issue. But it didn’t really matter to me one way or the other whether the legislature agreed with the position that ICPA was putting out there. It got them thinking about it and it gave me a chance to testify and see how the process worked.”
How hard is it to step out and become involved? For Jamie Lohr, once the initial inertia is past it’s a straightforward process.
‘It’s surprising. If I can do this, anybody can do this,” Lohr said. ‘This is not a hard thing to do. You find out what the issue is and if the issue means something to you and you have a viewpoint, all you have to do is give your viewpoint. You do not have to be an expert on it you just say how you feel about things. I’ve watched a lot of other people give testimony to the legislators on other issues. When I went to testify the first time, I realized that these are just ordinary people who care about these issues. It’s okay to be nervous if you are in front of a microphone in front of the legislature in Hartford. You just say what you need to say and hopefully that influences people to adopt the legislation that you are interested in or at least give them something to think about for the next round.”
What does Lohr say to others that might not be as active in supporting their organizations? ‘The last thing that I would want is for legislators who do not know the industry to be making decisions that affect us every day, and they do that if you do not speak up because then they are only getting their information from other sources,” she said. ‘So it really is important if you want to serve your customers better and if you want to make your business operate more smoothly to have your government working for you, and the best way to do that is for you to tell them what you need. Don’t be afraid.”