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Administration releases emergency heating aid

Associated Press | 9/24/2008, 5:56 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration said last Wednesday it was releasing $121 million in emergency relief funds to help low-income people cope with record home heating bills expected this winter.

Officials said $96 million would be distributed nationwide. An additional $25 million will be targeted to states with large numbers of families relying on oil heat, including Alaska and the New England states.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said through a spokeswoman that the $11.5 million in emergency aid to Massachusetts was needed given high energy costs, but it isn’t enough.

“Senator Kennedy is very pleased that these much-needed funds will be available to assist the most vulnerable citizens of the Commonwealth this winter. It’s highly likely that additional assistance will be needed, but this is a good start,” spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner said in a statement.

The release of contingency funds brings the total amount of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) money granted to Massachusetts to $126.5 million this year, Kennedy said.

Lawmakers and heating aid advocates had pressed President Bush to provide more money through the program.

The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents state-run low-income energy assistance programs, predicts that home heating oil costs will hit record levels this winter. The group said the national average cost to heat a home with oil this winter will be $2,524, up from $1,962 last winter. The Northeast, with its cold winters and reliance on oil heat, is particularly vulnerable to rising energy costs.

Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., organized a joint letter earlier this month with his New England colleagues urging Bush to release the emergency money. Murphy said the funds, approved for emergency use in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, would have expired if Bush had not acted.

“This funding is a critical down payment for a very expensive home heating season in Connecticut,” Murphy said. “It would have made absolutely no sense for $100 million in funding for people who desperately need it this winter to disappear simply because of inaction by the president.”

New York will get more than $12 million in additional fuel aid.

“More people than ever are going to need LIHEAP assistance, and these additional funds will hopefully ensure that anyone who needs help can get it,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Nobody should have to choose between putting food on the table and heating their homes.”

The Energy Information Administration, a statistical division of the U.S. Department of Energy, projected last month that the prices of natural gas and heating oil will be at record highs this winter. In some cases, home heating oil, propane and kerosene already are twice as high as they were two years ago, meaning that a dollar of federal aid will not travel nearly as far this winter.

A slumping economy that has left many more people without jobs has made the problem worse, Wolfe said.

In Congress, members from the Northeast pressed unsuccessfully this summer to add billions to the LIHEAP program.

Congress last year approved roughly $2.6 billion for LIHEAP for fiscal year 2008.

(Associated Press)