Emergency fuel program stops taking applications

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Emergency fuel program stops taking applications

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells, Globe Staff, 2/4/2000

oaring home heating oil prices and skyrocketing demand have caused even Citizens Energy Corp., the local program best exemplifying the need for fuel assistance to the poor and elderly, to stop accepting applications for aid.

With oil prices in Boston more than double what they were last spring and demand continuing in the face of frigid weather, the company, run by former US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, announced yesterday that it would not be able to deliver oil to any new customers for the time being.

Citizens Energy, a well-known Kennedy family nonprofit, said it hoped to be able to take on new cases within 10 days.

The organization promised, however, that all 8,300 people being served would continue to get oil for the rest of the winter.

The announcement heightened concerns about the well-being of Massachusetts' poor and elderly families in the face of the highest oil prices in more than a decade.

''Demand is much greater than our capacity to provide supplies,'' Kennedy said. He added that Citizens Energy had gotten as many calls for help in the last five days as in a full three months last winter.

Citizens Energy, of which Kennedy is chairman and president, operates an oil heat program that delivers cut-rate oil to needy Massachusetts residents. Qualifying families can get oil at 40 cents per gallon; the market retail rate is fast approaching $2 per gallon. This is the program that Citizens Energy is suspending.

At a news conference yesterday, Kennedy attacked the federal government for not requiring oil companies to keep substantial reserves of oil for emergency use.

''Unlike natural gas and electricity, oil is a much freer commodity,'' Kennedy said. ''Now that oil is in competition with natural gas and electricity, the government has to set standards to ensure adequate supply.''

Kennedy said that because the government forces industrial users to switch from natural gas to oil whenever temperatures fall too low, to preserve natural gas reserves, oil supplies can dwindle when temperatures drop too low for too long.

''If we allow customers in the industrial sector to switch from natural gas to oil, then oil will be bled down,'' Kennedy said. ''I am very disturbed that we cannot get minimum standards set in this region.''

More than 40 percent of Americans who rely on emergency fuel assistance are elderly, so yesterday's announcement sparked concern that those who need heat the most may be cold this winter.

''We ought to be looking out for our grandparents,'' Kennedy said.

The federal government had promised aid to New England to help the region through its current heating crisis, but Kennedy said the financial commitment had yet to live up to the promises.

''They promised $300 million, but so far only $10 million has been made available, which is a drop in the bucket,'' said Kennedy.

Though Citizens Energy is most well-known locally for its oil heat program, it is an international oil company that, as part of its corporate mission, operates charitable nonprofits, said Brian O'Connor, a company spokesman.

The oil heat program's commercials, featuring Kennedy, have become a recognizable feature of the local television landscape, and have helped to draw more calls than Citizens Energy could handle.

Kennedy offered no tangible plan for getting the program back on track. However, he said crude oil is cheaper in New York than in Boston, and expressed his hope that market forces would even that discrepancy, bringing the price of oil down to a level where his group could once again afford to distribute it.

''I'm hopeful that it'll only last a few days,'' Kennedy said. ''But the fact of the matter is, last week I thought it would be worked out by now.''

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), February 04, 2000


Homer, where would we be without you. Your posts are terrific. Thanks for doing all the surfing, so I don't have to. :)

-- Mary (bdazzleddesigns@juno.com), February 04, 2000.

I second that! Thanks Homer.

-- Dee (T1colt556@aol.com), February 04, 2000.

I third that motion, thanks, Homer.

-- Guy Daley (guydaley@bwn.net), February 04, 2000.

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