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New Hampshire to Cut Oil Deal with Venezuela

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New Hampshire to Cut Oil Deal with Venezuela

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New Hampshire to Cut Oil Deal with Venezuela

New Hampshire to Cut Oil Deal with Venezuela

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New Hampshire plans to join a growing list of Eastern states signing deals for discount heating oil from Venezuela. The fuel is reserved for low-income residents who are struggling with high fuel costs. As New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein reports, the deal has touched off a political battle in the state.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This past week the State of Vermont announced plans to buy discounted heating oil from Venezuela. Three other states and parts of New York City have also brokered a deal with Citgo, an arm of Venezuela's national oil company.

Now New Hampshire is thinking about it. But as Dan Gorenstein of New Hampshire Public Radio reports, in the Granite State simply attempting to contact Citgo has brought the Governor's office nothing but, well, heat.

DAN GORENSTEIN reporting:

A few weeks ago New Hampshire Governor John Lynch asked his staff to see what kind of deal the state could get from Citgo for home heating oil. Neighboring states Maine and Massachusetts had already secured aid, and Vermont wasn't far behind.

This winter in New Hampshire, federal home heating dollars were running low while demand was up, along with energy prices. So Lynch took some initial steps, which spokesperson Pam Walsh described as tentative.

Ms. PAMELA WALSH (Spokesperson for Governor John Lynch): When other states are doing something, you know, he thought it was prudent to see what they were doing and whether it is something that would be the right decision for New Hampshire.

GORENSTEIN: But in New Hampshire the issue is complicated indeed. When news broke the Democratic governor had approached Citgo, members of the state's all Republican delegation pounced.

New Hampshire Senator John Sununu says he doesn't want his state or any community to be suckered by cut-rate oil from President Hugo Chavez, a friend of Fidel Castro's. Chavez has called President Bush “Mr. Danger” and a “madman” and has urged other countries in the hemisphere to oppose United States polices.

Cheap oil, says Sununu, is just a way for the Venezuelan President to show off.

Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire): Someone who has been strongly aligned against American interests, and he has been given this political stage by taking the assets of the people of Venezuela and giving them away at cut-rate prices while his country remains mired in horrible poverty. And I don't think that is something that any state should be party to.

Congressman BURNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): Frankly, my concern here is not international geopolitics.

GORENSTEIN: That's Congressman Burney Sanders, an Independent from Vermont. He helped negotiate the recent contract with Citgo, which would supply heating oil to 10-12,000 household in his state.

Congressman SANDERS: And if Exxon Mobile wants to do it, I would take that as well, or any other large corporation. So to my mind this is not a political issue, this is not a controversial issue. This is a means by which we can keep people warm, senior citizens, low income people in the State of Vermont who need that help.

GORENSTEIN: Back in New Hampshire, Gail Hennessey heads up the state's fuel assistance program. He says Sununu and other critics need to separate the oil source with the good it brings to those who can't afford heat.

Mr. GALE HENNESSY: I'm certain that this is not going to threaten the security of the nation if we buy oil from Venezuela, because we used to buy oil from Saddam Hussein when he was one of our friends. We bought oil from Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabian individuals were part of the attack of the World Trade Centers.

GORENSTEIN: For the record, the New Hampshire Secretary of State has told New Hampshire there's nothing illegal about purchasing oil from Venezuela. In fact, one quarter of the oil from Florida to Maine comes from that country.

Senator Sununu says he appreciates that New Hampshire could use additional aid, just not from Hugo Chavez. Instead, he's requested more money from President Bush. But the whole argument may be moot, because so far, Citgo hasn't returned New Hampshire's call.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.

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