Friday, February 24, 2006

Venezuelan Oil, Political Heat

Hartford Courant
February 24 2006

So long as Congress keeps holding up federal funds for energy assistance to low-income households, Connecticut officials have every right to consider CITGO Petroleum Corp.'s offer of cheap heating oil.

CITGO, based in Houston, is a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, PetrĂ³leos de Venezuela S.A. In November, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez began making good on his offer to ship heating oil at a discounted price to low-income households in New York and Massachusetts. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has worked out a deal with the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp. in Boston to have 4.8 million gallons of the oil delivered to low-income New Haven residents.

In a letter to Gov. M. Jodi Rell early this month, Mr. DeStefano said Citizens Energy Corp. is also willing to work with the 12 community action agencies that administer the energy assistance program in Connecticut. The governor demurred, requesting a legal opinion from Attorney General Richard Blumenthal before endorsing the idea.

The price of CITGO's oil may be discounted, but it does carry an extra political cost. Although Venezuela is already a big supplier of oil to the United States, the leftist Mr. Chavez, a frequent critic of President Bush, is accused of coming up with the low-cost heating oil program to embarrass the White House. Mr. DeStefano is a Democratic candidate for governor.

On Capitol Hill, however, Republican senators seem to be doing a good job of embarrassing themselves. With a dozen states in the Northeast and Midwest already out of federal heating assistance (Connecticut is due to run out next month), Congress adjourned for the Presidents' Day recess without replenishing the fund.

The roots for this stalemate go back to December when GOP senators (led by Alaska's Ted Stevens) tried to sneak through a controversial measure allowing drilling for oil and gas in the protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When the strategy failed, they retaliated against their Northeastern colleagues by stripping away a provision for $2 billion in energy assistance.

Senate Republicans ought to forgo this politics of pettiness and replenish the low-income energy assistance program. Until they do, Connecticut should give serious consideration to taking part in the Venezuela-CITGO heating oil program.

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