The Big Chill
A winter fuel crisis of high prices and shortages could darken homes and factories
Eastman's experience is all too common, says Jerry McKim, chief of Iowa's Bureau of Energy Assistance. "These households are carrying significant debt from last winter into this winter--that's something people aren't catching," he says. In Iowa, one of the few states that keep such statistics, overdue utility accounts in October reached a record 221,558, up 5 percent over the previous year. Most northern states have rules against utilities cutting off heat in winter for some customers who are delinquent. But the rules don't help everyone, including many cut off before winter. McKim last week petitioned Iowa officials to enact more protection for households with children. Because shutoffs can begin apace in spring, that's when the true impact of the current shortage may become apparent. "I have equal concerns about what's going to happen this winter and coming out of the winter," says McKim.
The federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is supposed to help, but funding is so inadequate it is like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The average $311 payment per family would barely cover the projected increase in household winter energy costs for just this year ($281 for natural gas, $255 for oil). But the program would collapse if all 33 million eligible households applied. That number has ballooned 66 percent since the program was founded in 1981, while funding ticked up just 4 percent as consumer prices rose 81 percent and energy bills tripled. LIHEAP reaches 4.9 million households, only 15 percent of those eligible.
Maine has one of the highest benefits, at about $420 per household. But with heating oil there recently selling at $2.35 per gallon, LIHEAP aid would put just 179 gallons in a home tank. The average Maine home needs 850 to 1,200 gallons to make it through winter, says the state's energy assistance office. One 70-year-old Maine LIHEAP recipient, who asked not to be named, says that she gets through the winter by keeping her thermostat at 62 degrees. As for her expensive asthma medication: "I try to stretch that out if I can." It's a common route; a survey showed that one third of LIHEAP recipients didn't take prescriptions fully in order to pay energy bills. Some 94 percent of those receiving aid are elderly, disabled, or taking care of children.
Making do with less. Some states are cutting back on payments, hoping the pot of money will last longer. Colorado has reduced its average grant from $366 to $300, says Glenn Cooper, the state's energy assistance director. "We try to help more people with fewer dollars rather than fewer people with more dollars," he says. "The downside is the benefits are not adequate." Some states have kicked in extra funding this year, but Congress, struggling with a mounting deficit, recently rejected several bids for more dollars. Despite urgings from some Republican senators, the U.S. oil industry declined to offer any of its $30 billion in third-quarter profits for what it views as a government responsibility. The only significant outside aid has come from Citgo Petroleum, controlled by the Venezuelan government and its president, fierce Bush administration adversary Hugo Chavez, who has promised $10 million in discounts to low-income northeastern heating oil customers.