Low Cost Home Heating Oil Brings Warmth to a Cold World

  • Baltimore Messenger
  • By Larry Perl
Larry Perl

Deborah Henderson, 53, lives with HIV in federal Section 8 housing in Remington. She has little money to make ends meet and sometimes must choose between eating and heating her house.

“I’ve got to stay warm with my illness,” she says.

Last week, Henderson’s cold world was filled with warmth. A truck with a former U.S. congressman at the wheel pulled up to the steps of her sparsely furnished row house on Miles Avenue and pumped in perhaps a winter’s worth of low-cost home heating oil.

Henderson was the first Marylander to receive subsidized heating oil under a popular, but politically touchy, partnership between oil giant Citgo Petroleum Corp. and Citizens Energy Corp., a Boston-based nonprofit founded by former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II.

The two-year-old program brings discounted fuel oil to low-income residents nationwide. Program officials say 15,000 households in Maryland will receive 3 million gallons at 40 percent off the regular price.

For Henderson, who applied to the program through Alliance Fuel Co., her local fuel oil provider, it meant that 80 of the 200 gallons she received the morning of Dec. 6 were essentially free.

The touchy part is that Citgo is the U.S. subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. — Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.

There is no love lost between U.S. President George Bush and Hugo Chavez, the anti-American president of Venezuela. Chavez denounced Bush at the United Nations in September.

Many analysts have speculated in published reports that Chavez, who recently was re-elected by a strong majority, may be using the discount fuel oil program in an effort to make Bush look bad.

Politics wasn’t much on the mind of Henderson, who lives with her son, Laron Lee, 28. They pool her monthly disability and Social Security checks and Laron’s income as an Army reserve sergeant and a gas station attendant.

“Politically, I don’t know,” Henderson said, as she and a large media contingent waited nearly an hour in the cold for the fuel trust to arrive. “I’m just trying to survive.”

‘Where’s Mel Gibson?’

Henderson passed the time talking to reporters and receiving well-wishes from Citgo executives.

“I wish I had better furniture,” she said as a WBAL-TV crew followed her around the house.

Henderson had fun with her 15 minutes of fame.

“Where’s Tiger Woods?” asked a jovial Bill Schaefer, manager of Citgo’s mid-Atlantic region.

“Yeah, where’s Mel Gibson?” Henderson shouted.

But she admitted, “I’m nervous. I have butterflies.”

Finally, the Alliance Fuel truck arrived. Kennedy nearly clipped a parked care as he turned the corner onto Miles Avenue.

Officials of Citgo, Citizens Energy Corp. and the Venezuela Embassy in Washington played down politics in a joint news conference outside Henderson’s house.

Kennedy said many Americans sit by their stoves to stay warm.

“It breaks your heart,” he said, extolling the virtues of the Citgo-Venezuela Heating Oil Program.

“It’s a program that will help a lot of Deborahs,” Kennedy said.

But politics flowed like oil under the surface. “I am so grateful to the people of Venezuela,” Kennedy gushed, adding, “We have to acknowledge that President Chavez helped make this happen.”

Condemning the program, he said, is like saying, “You can’t drive your car because Venezuela oil is going into it. Venezuela sells us 58 million gallons of oil a year.”

“We must leave politics aside,” said Fadi Kabboul, the Venezuelan Embassy’s minister counselor for petroleum affairs.

“I just want to say, ‘Thank you and bless all of you,’” Henderson said, as her son watched from an upstairs window. She hugged Mary Lou Keefer, director of the Maryland State Energy Office.

Back to Earth

This week, life was back to normal for Henderson, a diminutive redhead who’s helping the Episcopal Housing Corp. beautify her neighborhood, which included Sterlina’s Crab and Oyster House, Long John’s Pub and Chicken Bones Carryout.

“I came back to earth,” she said. “We still (are) broke. They went up on my rent.”

But it gave her a warm feeling that people came together to give her a break on home heating oil.

“It was like giving a rent party,” she said, recalling growing up in west Baltimore when the neighbors threw parties to take up collections to help one another pay rent.

Maybe, she said, all this would be the start of something bigger — “For everybody in the world to come together and help each other and not fight wars.”