People Will Die This Winter Because They Can't Stay Warm
The gas and electric bill crunch is largely caused by the dismal economy, experts say, but oil presents a nightmare all its own.
“This is the first time that I have felt in years that people will die this winter because they can’t stay warm,” said Joe Kennedy, founder of the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp. “This is by far the most grim and scary set of storm clouds on the horizon that I have seen in 30 years in trying to address the needs of the poor and elderly, in terms of their heating needs that are coming this winter.”
The skyrocketing cost of oil could saddle consumers with winter heating bills as high as $7,000, according to leading advocates. At the end of trading Friday, oil closed at $139.65 a barrel as a shocking new report from economists at CIBC World Markets predicted that gasoline would hit $7 a gallon by 2010.
The situation is expected to be dire in the Bay State, where about 40 percent of households heat their homes with oil, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.
“We’ve gotten to the point where, a year ago, a family could sacrifice to pay their bills. Now it’s more than their monthly income,” said Wolfe, who estimates families will pay about $900 monthly for oil heat.
Charles Harak, a staff attorney at the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center, said the 35,000 households that receive fuel assistance will have to shell out an extra $50 million to heat their homes this winter.
Last year, the state chipped in $15 million for fuel assistance, but there is no line-item in the budget for such aid.
“They want to act as if this is some act of God that happens every so many years, rather than something that happens every year,” said Bob Coard, president and CEO of Action for Boston Community Development, which disperses federal and state fuel assistance.
Congress is authorized to spend 5.1 billion on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating fuel assistance for low-income families, but last year the program only dispersed $2.6 billion.
“What gives is the fact that there is a limited number of states that get cold,” Kennedy said. “There is very little penalty other than your conscience that a legislator feels when they don’t provide assistance to the poor.”
An effort to set aside $3.5 billion for next year died before it got off the ground, said NEADA director Wolfe.
“You have to get the $5.1 billion,” Kennedy said. “Anything less than that, you are cutting to the bone of the poor.”