Oil Deal is Her Lifeline

Linda Kelly wasn’t spending a lot of time yesterday thinking about geopolitics. She was too busy relishing the prospect of keeping warm this winter.

Kelly was the first recipient of cut-rate Venezuelan oil delivered to the Bay State through the efforts of US Representative William D. Delahunt and Joseph P. Kennedy II of Citizens Oil.

The arrangement has drawn some criticism because it was negotiated with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has been a bitter critic of the Bush administration. Kelly doesn’t care.

“Just because he has problems with President Bush, that’s not going to affect me,” Kelly said yesterday by phone. “My political views aren’t going to keep me warm. I know people keep talking bout this, but it’s a gesture that someone wanted to make and give to me, and it’s doing to help lots of people, not just me.”

Kelly and her Quincy home provided the backdrop for the announcement of the deal during a press conference Tuesday. There were lots of big shots around, including the chief executive of Citgo, a Texas-based subsidiary of the Venezuelan national oil company.

Kelly wound up on ABC News, and her phone was still ringing yesterday, with Reuters and the Associated Press on the line. She was becoming a symbol, the human face of the “situation.”

She said she became a customer of Citizens, the fuel assistance program, after her state fuel assistance ran out last winter. Kelly suffers from multiple sclerosis. Her husband is food service director for Derby Academy in Hingham. Their three children are 18, 16, and 14 years old; the oldest is a Type 1 diabetic.

They manage to make ends meet, but last winter’s spike in energy prices hit them hard. This year seems likely to be just as difficult. Fuel process may be moderating form earlier record highs, but they can still tear a hole in a budget.

“My daughter and I are doing fine, but we need all the medication to stay healthy,” Kelly explained. “We don’t have a whole lot of extra income to handle that kind of jump in price. What budget can handle that?”

She said she thinks the program, which will allow eligible residents to buy 200 gallons of oil at reduced prices, will save lives. “There were people who were going to freeze to death,” she said. “It wouldn’t have shocked me. This is huge.”

What made it big news had nothing to do with Linda Kelly. The news was that a Democratic representative had managed an end run around the administration by cutting a deal with an avowed adversary.

It is true that relations between Chávez and the United States have been strained. Chávez has said that President Bush is an assassin and a crazy man.

Some Americans aren’t huge fans of Chávez, either. He has been taken to task for human rights violations and for suppressing press freedoms and is generally one of the more controversial figures in Latin America. Yet, none of that stops us from buying oil from Venezuela every day. The 285,000 barrels of oil that will be sent to Massachusetts under this program is a small addition to what is already a big import.

Kennedy wasn’t available for comment yesterday, but I imagine that he was enjoying the controversy. Both he and Delahunt have strongly defended the deal, which no doubt owes a lot to Delahunt’s carefully cultivated ties to Latin American leaders.

The controversy will probably be the typical quick political squall, forgotten as soon as a fresher opportunity for partisan sniping in Washington comes along. Its effects will linger a bit longer for the beneficiaries. The deliveries start in mid-December.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Kelly said. “Even the vendors are going to give a special rate, so the cost is cut all around. It’s everybody working together. That’s how you fix these things. It’s not just Chávez.”

Kelly sees the big picture a lot more clearly than the deal’s critics.

Fuel Pact Defended at Local Signing

Local legislators and Venezuelan officials yesterday vigorously defended an agreement that will bring discounted heating oil to more than 40,000 low-income Massachusetts residents courtesy of a Latin American leader engaged in an acerbic public campaign against President Bush and US foreign policy.

The deal, signed yesterday in a Quincy couple’s front year, will provide more than 12 million gallons of heating oil from Venezuela, with each qualifying household eligible to buy up to 200 gallons, enough to last several weeks, at a 40 percent discount. The Quincy couple, Linda and Paul Kelly, were the first beneficiaries of the arrangement.

The agreement has come under fire because President Hugo Chávez, whose nation is the fourth-largest supplier of US oil, as used harsh language to criticize Bush policies on free trade, poverty, and the war in Iraq. But representative for his government yesterday said politics played no role in the gesture, which was negotiated recently in a face-to-face meeting between Chávez and Representative William D. Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat.

“Our objective is simple: to help people of limited means through the winter,” said Felix Rodriguez, chief of CITGO, a US subsidiary of the Venezuelan petroleum company, said: “No one should have to choose between heat and medicine or food.”

By providing the discount, CITGO will forgo about $8 million in profit, local advocates said. Such an arrangement has never been made between a foreign government and a state.

For now, the arrangement is only for this winter, though local politicians and advocates would like to see it renewed in coming years, according to two officials involved in the Venezuela agreement. The officials wanted to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the deal.

The officials also said they were interested in striking similar deals with other oil producing nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, though no talks are active.

All the major US oil companies were also asked to participate in such arrangements; none agree, the officials said.

Thousands in Mass to get Cheaper Oil; Delahunt, Chávez help broker a deal

A subsidiary of the Venezuelan national oil company will ship 12 million gallons of discounted home-heating oil to local charities and 45,000 low-income families in Massachusetts next month under a deal arranged by US Representative William D. Delahunt, a local nonprofit energy corporation, and Venezuela’s president, White House critic Hugo Chavez.

The approximately $9 million deal will bring nine million gallons of oil to families and three million gallons to institutions that serve the poor, such as homeless shelters, said officials from Citizens Energy Corp., which is signing the contract. Families would pay about $276 for a 200-gallon shipment, a savings of about $184 and enough to last about three weeks.

The contract is to be signed Tuesday by officials from Citizens Energy, based on Boston, and CITGO, a Houston-based subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela SA. The contract was arranged after months of talks between Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat active in Latin American affairs, and Chavez, a leftist former paratrooper and fierce critic of the Bush administration.

“We recognized that we had an opportunity,” Delahunt’s spokesman, Steve Schwadron, said yesterday.

Chavez showed, “an inclination to do a humanitarian distribution” of oil, and poor families in Massachusetts had a “desperate need” for relief from high home-heating prices, Schwadron said. He characterized the deal as one between “a US company and two nonprofits to help them do more of what they already do, with terms that mean the price is good.”

Delahunt was not available for comment yesterday.

Schwadron said the congressman did not get involved in the details of the contract, but had raised the issue with Chavez and helped connect the nonprofits with CITGO, which is owned by PDV America Inc., an indirect, wholly owned subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela SA, the national oil company of Venezuela.

When the discounted oil arrives early next month, Citizens Energy — whose chairman and president, former US representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, also helped arrange the contract — will screen recipients with the help of local organizations that serve the poor. Some 350 local dealers will then distribute three-fourths of the oil to local families.

Mass Energy Consumer Alliance, a nonprofit group that also offers discounted oil, will distribute or sell the remaining quarter to homeless shelters, food banks, and low-income housing groups, said Larry Chretien, the group’s executive director. Recipients much apply for the help, he said.

Home heating oil prices are expected to increase by 30 percent to 50 percent this winter because of rising oil prices, Chretien said. Because funding for the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program is expected to pay for only one delivery of heating oil to eligible households, the CITGO agreement could help ease the crunch of some families, he said.

“Fuel assistance is woefully underfunded, so this is a major shot in the arm for people who otherwise wouldn’t get through the winter,” Chretien said. He said he hoped the deal would present “a friendly challenge” to US oil companies — which recently reported record quarterly profits — to use their windfall to help poor families survive the winter.

Some foreign-policy analysts said Chavez helped broke the deal in part as a jab at President Bush. Chavez has frequently belittled the White House, saying it is not doing enough to help the poor, and he has called Bush an “assassin” and a “crazy man.” Now, he has helped arrange for 285,000 barrels of oil to arrive in Massachusetts at a 40 percent discount over the next four months. Each barrel contains 42 gallons.

“It is a slap in the face” to the Bush administration, said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a group that tracks Latin American politics and government. “Chavez is involved in petro-diplomacy.”

Chavez has drawn criticism from human rights groups for his treatment of political foes and curbs on media freedoms. But he has also become a hero to some on the left who say he has helped improve conditions for the poor in his country and drawn attention to US foreign policy in Iraq and Latin America.

On Friday, a US State Department spokesman declined to comment on the oil deal with Chavez.

Schwadron said Delahunt’s involvement had nothing to do with Venezuela’s strained relationship with the Bush administration and was meant as a specific effort to ease high heating costs for Bay State residents.

Massachusetts already gets a great deal of oil from Venezuela, Chretien said, and the deal with CITGO means only that the oil will be less expensive. He added that he has never been approached with such an offer form a US oil company.

“We did not negotiate foreign policy here,” Schwadron said. “We steered clear of that.”

Kennedy said he was not concerned about Chavez’s politics.

“You start parsing which countries’ politics we’re going to feel comfortable with, and only buying oil from them, then there are going to be a lot of people not driving their cars and not staying warm this winter,” Kennedy said. “There are a lot of countries that have much worse records than Venezuela. At the end of the day it’s not our business to go choosing other peoples’ leaders, particularly when they are duly-elected democratic leaders.”

Kennedy said Delahunt has been working with Chavez “for years now and has gone down there many times and developed a personal relationship with him.”

Chavez hospital used his influence in the global market before.

In August, he offered discounted home-heating oil to poor communities in the United States after meeting in Caracas with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.