States Take Creative Approach to Home Heating Costs

State officials around the country are worried about how low-income residents will stay warm this winter. It's expected to cost 28 percent more to heat a home this year, and poor people often rely on state and federal help to pay those bills.

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Home heating costs are expected to be dramatically higher this year. It's not clear when or whether Congress will provide additional federal funding for heating assistance, and an unusual deal in Massachusetts shows just how nervous states are getting. NPR's Anne Hawke reports.

ANNE HAWKE reporting:

Democratic Congressman William Delahunt struck an eyebrow-raising deal with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Today, at a news conference in Quincy, Massachusetts, Delahunt announced that a Venezuelan oil company will ship 12 million gallons of oil at a discount to the Bay State to help low-income residents get through the winter.

Representative WILLIAM DELAHUNT (Democrat, Massachusetts): I spent a long evening with President Chavez. I explained to him that I had grave concerns about the costs of home heating oil that the Northeast was going to have to deal with. And when the president of Venezuela made that offer, I said, `Bring it on!'

HAWKE: Venezuela will also deliver eight million gallons of discounted heating fuel to non-profit groups in the Bronx. Chavez is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, so these shipments carry all sorts of political weight. But they also represent creative thinking at a time when states are pulling out all the stops to find ways to fund heating assistance for the elderly and poor.

The US Department of Energy is estimating it'll cost all consumers on average 28 percent more to heat homes this year than last year. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney signed a heating bill to provide $20 million of state money to defray energy costs for the state's neediest households. It's not just that energy prices are higher this year. Part of the urgency is that more people are seeking help.

Unidentified Woman: We'll need a letter from your oil company...

HAWKE: At Action for Boston Community Development, or ABCD, which serves 18,000 households, applications are up 15 percent already despite an unseasonably warm fall. John Drew of ABCD says with heating bills running more than a thousand dollars per household, a harsh winter could be disastrous for New England.

Mr. JOHN DREW (Action for Boston Community Development): We have people making $19,000, gross, a family of four, trying to pay their heat, rent, eat, buy clothes for their children and then have a doubling of their heating bill. They can't do it. So we need to be able to intervene because the downside is homelessness, death, illness.

HAWKE: Traditionally, heating assistance is funded both by states and the federal government. Mark Wolfe heads the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. He says states are anxious.

Mr. MARK WOLFE (National Energy Assistance Directors' Association): They're really expecting the federal government to make up the difference, and that's what's happened historically. And this year is really the first year that we're not seeing that, and that's really causing alarm across the country.

HAWKE: A group of senators from the Northeast has backed several amendments in Congress to increase appropriations for heating assistance, but those proposals have failed and it's unclear what action, if any, Congress will take on the issue, which is why states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are dipping into their general funds. Ohio and Minnesota plan to use state welfare funds to cover heating costs, and other states are implementing discounts or tightening moratoriums on heating shutoffs by utility companies.

Maine recently created a charitable fund to raise $5 million in private money. Maine will also be sending out volunteer teams to help needy residents winterize their homes. Beth Nagusky is the state's director of energy independence and security. She says helping people winterize will lower bills, but that's not enough.

Ms. BETH NAGUSKY (Director of Energy Independence and Security, Maine): At today's prices, with the amount of money that we project from the federal government and with the number of households that we estimate will apply, we cannot even provide enough dollars to fill someone's oil tank one time.

HAWKE: Nagusky says to get through frigid Maine winters, most people who rely on oil for heat have to fill their oil tanks three or four times. Anne Hawke, NPR News.

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