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Winter Brings Bleak Options for Poor

Despite the soaring costs of home heating oil, federal aid has flat-lined. Across New England, state officials scramble for solutions.

January 10, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Winter has barely begun, and the soaring cost of home heating oil has already forced the poor to cut back on food, medicine and clothing -- a plight known in the frigid Northeast as "heat or eat."

Heating oil costs doubled in the last two years and climbed 21% during November and December, the Department of Energy said.

Consumers all over the country are feeling the pinch. But the effect has been most dramatic in New England, where 80% of the nation's heating oil is used and where policymakers are tracking a phenomenon called energy poverty.

When 3 feet of snow fell on the northernmost part of Maine after Christmas, state officials got scores of calls for help.

One man had 35 gallons of heating oil in his tank -- less than a week's worth even if he kept his house below 60 degrees -- and not enough money to buy more. In his 50s and on disability, he said he wore two pairs of socks, two sweatshirts and a jacket inside his house, which was 50 degrees.

A mother said she and her two kids were sitting in front of the clothes dryer to stay warm.

Murdock Cote, 43, called from Ashland, near the Canadian border, to say he had used his last $100 to buy oil for his nearly empty tank. But he couldn't get it delivered because his long, steep driveway was buried in snow -- and Cote, who is disabled, couldn't afford a plow service.

"It's been minus 5 degrees at night," he said. "And this is only the first snow. It's going to get a whole lot worse."

States like Maine say they are hamstrung because federal money to help the poor pay their energy bills has not increased substantially in the last two years, despite the jump in fuel costs. Approximately $2 billion in federal aid helps fund heating and air conditioning for about 5 million low-income households across the country.

Most of the heating funds already have been distributed to the poor, said Beth Nagusky, director of Maine's energy policy. She said the hardship stories broke her heart.

"Keeping people warm is a top priority," she said. "And it is increasingly difficult without Washington's help."

Local officials who rely on federal dollars to manage low-income heating programs "wait truly with bated breath every year to find out what that figure will be," said Michael Ferrante, president of an industry advocacy organization called the Massachusetts Oil Heat Council. The flat-line federal appropriation is in effect a dramatic cut because of rising fuel costs.

"It isn't enough money," Nagusky said. "The state is struggling to provide more, but it will mean cutting other programs, and Maine already has made significant cuts in programs across the board."

Nagusky said Maine to date had received $24.2 million in funds from the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Of that, $19.4 million will buy heating fuel for 48,000 households -- about 180 gallons per household, less than one full tank. Most heating oil users who keep their homes about 65 degrees go through three or four 275-gallon tanks per winter.

Across New England, states are scurrying to pass stopgap funding plans, even setting up government-sponsored charities to help people heat their homes. Friday, the White House released an additional $100 million for low-income heating aid.

Former Democratic Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II has anxiously monitored the situation. As chairman of Citizens Energy Corp., which supplies heating oil to low-income customers in Massachusetts, Kennedy said the rapid escalation of heating costs could bring dire consequences.

"I believe there will be hundreds of people who will suffer and die this winter," he said.

In November, Massachusetts made a deal to buy heating oil from Venezuela. The agreement brokered by Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt sends 12 million gallons of heavily discounted heating oil to the state over the course of four months this winter.

Officials in Maine and Rhode Island also are negotiating to buy fuel from the Venezuelan government and expect to announce deals shortly.

Republican Gov. Donald L. Carcieri was so concerned about how 20,000 indigent households in Rhode Island would get heat that he asked the Legislature to convene a special session to consider funding proposals. Legislators said no, so Carcieri wrote to the White House -- with no success.

But legislators in Massachusetts were quick to act this fall, passing a $20-million authorization for emergency heating funds for low-income households -- triple the allotment of last winter and by far the largest in state history. The state allocation will supplement federal funds.

Democratic Gov. John E. Baldacci of Maine was out with a hammer and nails this fall, part of a crew that installed insulation for 2,800 low-income households. Baldacci also launched a "Keep Maine Warm" charitable fund. Last week, he signed a bill that makes $5 million available to help pay for heating costs.

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