NEFI’s New Mission

What drove the New England Fuel Institute to become the National Energy & Fuels Institute? Former NEFI CEO Shane Sweet talked with current NEFI CEO Sean Cota to find out. Here, Sweet details the twists and turns that led to the Institute’s new name and new mission.

SUN TZU IS REPORTED to have said something along the lines of, ‘Don’t back the enemy into a corner, allowing irrational and nonrational forces to come into play.’” How does the advice of a legendary general who lived in ancient China apply to big changes at the New England Fuel Institute, now the National Energy & Fuels Institute? I’ll get to that in a moment.

NEFI announced that it was expanding its scope nationwide in July, following months, indeed years, of deliberation about the future of the heating oil industry. As the chief executive officer of NEFI from 2007 to 2011, I respect and understand what a monumental decision this was.

As I draft this page in late September, it is about one year since NEFI and other associations organized an industry “Summit” in Providence, Rhode Island, where more than 300 industry stakeholders from across the Northeast unanimously adopted a resolution to dramatically reduce the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. The “Providence Resolution,” as it is generally called, promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions from heating oil by 40% by 2030 and deliver a net-zero liquid heating fuel to consumers by 2050.  

“This is far, far more than a name change,” Sean Cota, NEFI’s chief executive officer told me. “It’s a decision to survive and ensure the [industry’s] future.” Cota added, “It’s not lost on us that the decision to re-brand and focus nationally threatens some. The choice was obvious given the current state of affairs.”

This is where Sun Tzu’s warning comes into play. Clearly, The Providence Resolution, and NEFI’s decision to go national, were born in part from a lack of options. NEFI was backed into a corner. But the choices it made were neither irrational nor nonrational.

If in your career you have fruitlessly sought a solution— or even just a discussion — before reluctantly making the difficult decision to move ahead alone, you can identify. 

It’s one thing for your leadership, your peers, your friends to say, “No, but here is what we can do.” That is a signal that they really do want to get you to a better place. It signals movement. For heating oil, this never happened. 

It’s another thing when other leaders in the industry respond, “No,” and “Stop asking,” and offer nothing or, worse yet, do not respond at all. The message is: Nothing is going to happen to address your concerns here.

For heating oil, an influential subset of the industry concluded that no real solution or alternative was forthcoming. But to keep doing nothing was far from a plan. Meanwhile, there were still others opposed — perhaps indifferent – to any significant change for heating oil. They did not see a problem, or chose to ignore it, and offered nothing other than, “It’s fine the way it is,” “There’s no real issue here,” or even “We really don’t want to talk about it.”

Consider the recent example of one fuel organization reaching out to another asking to discuss a joint effort. The association that asked was bluntly and rudely rebuked, with responses like, “We don’t want to talk to you about this,” and “Stop asking and don’t call us again.” Not for the first time was such an overture by one well-intended trade association to a sister association dismissed out of hand because of politics, personalities, and self-interest.

Unfortunately, this happens all the time. The tragedy is that no one gets called out for putting personal, professional, and political interests ahead of the industry. This is about the wrong people making decisions for everyone else.

In 2008, a proposal to modify the oil heat advocacy mechanism in place at the time was killed by a small cabal of state and national non-profits. The “opposition” engaged in a deliberate misinformation and disinformation campaign to stop the proposal long before any semblance of group discussion.

Twelve years has passed, and now a lack of options has forced a group of heating oil industry members to act.   

Twelve years.

What a waste.

“We did this because it was necessary and the industry is out of time,” Cota told me. Asked if he has any regrets, Cota said: “I grew up in this industry, so I’m used to hard work and problems. I took the job to save the industry, and hopefully grow it. I’m doing it for the right reasons. So, no. None.” 

As for the Providence Resolution, the following industry groups have adopted it: 

  • Maine Energy Marketers Association
  • Energy Marketers Association of New Hampshire
  •  Vermont Fuel Dealers Association
  •  Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association
  •  Energy Marketers Association of Rhode Island
  •  Connecticut Energy Marketers Association
  •  Empire State Energy Association (New York)
  •  Pennsylvania Petroleum Marketers Association
  • Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey 
  •  American Energy Coalition 

A version of this column is published in the October 2020 issue of Fuel Oil News.

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