It’s Time for Maduro to Go

President Nicolás Maduro has abused the legacy of President Hugo Chávez, stealing democracy from the people, suppressing their human rights and denying 31 million Venezuelans their right to a decent and prosperous life. It’s time for him to go.

My family has a long history of friendship with the people of Venezuela. They welcomed President John F. Kennedy and my father, Robert F. Kennedy, following the launch of the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, which put money not into guns and rockets but into housing and education and jobs. And I’ve seen that warmth and friendship when I’ve walked through the neighborhood in Caracas named for my father.

During my first visits to Venezuela nearly 40 years ago, I witnessed how the oil-rich government failed to provide for the Venezuelan poor. Later, I saw how, under Chávez, it provided better access to housing, health care, nutrition and education, along with significant reductions in poverty and a marked increase in voter participation. His style of leadership was unconventional and far from perfect, but he represented a welcome change from the rule of the elite who used Venezuela’s oil wealth to enrich only themselves.

Chávez’s efforts to help countries in the region with discounted oil — along with his commitment to assist U.S. families struggling to stay warm in the winter — were also commendable and contrasted sharply with how other oil-producing nations, not to mention oil companies, line their pockets at the expense of the poor. As chairman and president of Citizens Energy, I was proud of our work with Venezuela and its oil company Citgo to provide heating assistance for over a decade to millions of poor Americans, including Native American tribes from Alaska to Maine, residents of more than 200 homeless shelters, and struggling families in more than 20 states.

Like all political leaders, Chávez had his flaws, and I expressed concerns directly with the then-president over his war on words with then-President George W. Bush and encouraged greater cooperation with the United States. But Chávez never shied away from putting his record before the people in a string of elections, including a recall referendum. The ideals of his Bolivarian Revolution — to enfranchise the poor and use Venezuela’s incredible natural resources to improve their lives — were laudable. But sadly, under his successor, the revolution has run off the rails, descending into dictatorship.

Faced with declining oil prices, a contracting economy, street protests and a revived opposition controlling the nation’s National Assembly, Maduro has tossed out Chávez’s commitment to democratic elections in favor of rewriting the rules to suppress any vestige of power-sharing. He has jailed political opponents including Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, packed the supreme court, and denied the flow of much-needed humanitarian aid. He has given the military control over crucial sectors of the economy, detained dissidents without trial and postponed regional elections. By stripping powers from the National Assembly and blocking a recall effort, he has further undermined Venezuela’s spirit of vigorous democracy.

Last month, in a blatant attempt to stage an end run around the democratically elected parliament, he engineered a referendum for a new Constituent Assembly that will rewrite the constitution and assume broad powers, including the possible dissolution of the National Assembly. This poses an existential threat to what remains of the country’s pluralistic rule. This past weekend, he ousted the country’s top prosecutor, who had opposed the vote, and replaced her with a more compliant loyalist.

I have personally urged Maduro to free political opponents and work with the United States to combat drug and sex trafficking and restrict the movement of terrorists. That advice, delivered before and after the end of our work with Venezuela two years ago, went unheeded.

The suffering of the people remains horrendous. Millions are going hungry, medicines are in short supply, and infant mortality is rising along with the murder rate. It is simply heartbreaking to see a country blessed with natural wealth descend into chaos.

If Maduro continues his present course, additional and tougher targeted global sanctions should be imposed on him and those close to him who benefit from the corrupt system. To hasten his departure, the international community should offer a massive humanitarian aid program, debt relief and new capital to reinvest in the oil industry and jump-start the economy, all conditional on his resignation from office.

Also essential is the immediate release of political prisoners, full freedom for López and Ledezma (who were released last week to house arrest), and the restoration of democratic rights of the opposition and the media. The interim government must respect the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly and ensure new elections are free, fair and internationally monitored.

Most importantly, there must be elections to choose another president next year. If not, one of Latin America’s greatest nations will further descend into the quagmire of militarized governance, unrest, and betrayal of democracy and the rule of law.

Our two countries have stood together since our own revolution close to 250 years ago, when Francisco de Miranda, a hero of Venezuelan independence, fought on the side of our patriots in America’s struggle for freedom. Today, we must stand on the side of the patriots in Venezuela who represent the aspirations of every Venezuelan, rich or poor, for democracy and prosperity.

Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former member of Congress from Massachusetts, is chairman and president of Citizens Energy Corp.

Political Posers Abuse Nonprofit Status

When I started Citizens Energy Corp. in 1979, the goal was to create an oil company that would help the poor.

Tax lawyers said we should become a nonprofit 501(c)(4). As a company providing heating oil to the needy, we would qualify as a “social welfare organization” and therefore be exempt from federal income taxes — allowing us to give away even more to the poor.

Unlike nonprofit 501(c)(3) charities, which collect tax-deductible contributions, 501(c)(4)s generate most of their revenues from dues and fees and business activities. Thousands of organizations work the same way, channeling funds into providing a concrete social benefit to the public.

But recent revelations about political groups abusing their tax-exempt status show how far nonprofits have been allowed to stray from the mission of serving the public.

While legitimate 501(c)(4)s spend over $40 billion annually on social welfare projects, others — ranging from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS to the Democratic-leaning Priorities USA — collect hundreds of millions of dollars in secret contributions to spend on political campaigns.

Most of the dark money funneling through 501(c)(4)s supports Republican candidates. In 2012, over 80 percent of more than $300 million in such spending was plunked down by conservative groups. Yet many of these groups checked the “no” box when asked by the IRS whether they planned to engage in any campaign activity. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity spent a whopping $39.4 million to defeat Democrats in 2010, despite claiming they would spend nothing on elections.

It is ludicrous to think that such spending is a legitimate expression of a “social welfare organization.” No one should be able to spend tax-free dollars — or be able to deduct donations as a business expense — to elect candidates.

The 1913 enabling legislation of the nonprofit section of the tax code provided the exemption to groups “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” However, for complex reasons, a 1959 regulation declared that “exclusively” meant “primarily.”

For the next 40 years, 501(c)(4)s provided a vehicle for nonprofits to spend tax-exempt dollars on advocacy efforts. In the meantime, federal regulators used the “primarily” interpretation to rule that groups could keep their 501(c)(4) status so long as no more than 49 percent of their spending went toward politics.

Then came two key Supreme Court rulings: The 2010 Citizens United case allowed unlimited corporate money to be spent on politics; and a separate decision that accepted the argument that ads targeting US Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin were not political because they did not tell the public how to vote.

Suddenly, political 501(c)(4)s sprang up like mushrooms. Political mercenaries took advantage of the loophole, arguing that their 501(c)(4) political ads, financed with hidden money, served the public welfare by educating the public.

The result is that they routinely engage in a clear conflict of interest by using their tax-exempt status — a benefit conferred by the American people — to operate as super PACs, spending millions of corporate dollars to influence who runs the government.

A number of solutions have been proposed to end the abuse, ranging from executive orders and legal challenges to regulatory proposals and legislation. None has yet succeeded in cleaning up the mess. From Tea Party groups to Organizing for America — which morphed out of President Obama’s campaign — political 501(c)(4)s continue to grow.

Meanwhile, the IRS continues to reel under revelations that it improperly ordered investigations of groups with the words “Tea Party,” “Israel,” “progressive,” and “occupy” in their titles.

Legislation is the best guarantor that the IRS close the 501(c)(4) loophole. By returning to the “exclusive” standard that prevailed before 1959, any spending outside of that serving the social welfare would be banned. Such legislation should also codify once and for all clear standards for determining when advocacy communication crosses the line from public education to partisan purpose. However, the political divide on Capitol Hill makes the odds of passing any such bill highly unlikely.

The IRS and the Treasury recently agreed to consider regulatory reform. The IRS should at least:

• Require that political contributions of $250 or more to 501(c)(4)s be publicly reported, pulling away the mantle of secrecy that cloaks all donors.

• Deny companies the ability to write off as business expenses any donations made to political 501(c)(4)s.

• Codify regulatory standards for what constitutes political speech.

Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code provides a legitimate financial advantage to organizations devoted to social welfare. But its benefits should not be extended to political posers and pretenders hiding secret donations beneath a nonprofit disguise.

Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former US congressman, is chairman, president, and founder of Citizens Energy Corp.

The High Cost of Gambling on Oil

Boston – The drastic rise in the price of oil and gasoline is in part the result of forces beyond our control: as high-growth countries like China and India increase the demand for petroleum, the price will go up.

But there are factors contributing to the high price of oil that we can do something about. Chief among them is the effect of “pure” speculators — investors who buy and sell oil futures but never take physical possession of actual barrels of oil. These middlemen add little value and lots of cost as they bid up the price of oil in pursuit of financial gain. They should be banned from the world’s commodity exchanges, which could drive down the price of oil by as much as 40 percent and the price of gasoline by as much as $1 a gallon.

Today, speculators dominate the trading of oil futures. According to Congressional testimony by the commodities specialist Michael W. Masters in 2009, the oil futures markets routinely trade more than one billion barrels of oil per day. Given that the entire world produces only around 85 million actual “wet” barrels a day, this means that more than 90 percent of trading involves speculators’ exchanging “paper” barrels with one another.

Because of speculation, today’s oil prices of about $100 a barrel have become disconnected from the costs of extraction, which average $11 a barrel worldwide. Pure speculators account for as much as 40 percent of that high price, according to testimony that Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, gave to Congress last year. That estimate is bolstered by a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Many economists contend that speculation on oil futures is a good thing, because it increases liquidity and better distributes risk, allowing refiners, producers, wholesalers and consumers (like airlines) to “hedge” their positions more efficiently, protecting themselves against unseen future shifts in the price of oil.

But it’s one thing to have a trading system in which oil industry players place strategic bets on where prices will be months into the future; it’s another thing to have a system in which hedge funds and bankers pump billions of purely speculative dollars into commodity exchanges, chasing a limited number of barrels and driving up the price. The same concern explains why the United States government placed limits on pure speculators in grain exchanges after repeated manipulations of crop prices during the Great Depression.

The market for oil futures differs from the markets for other commodities in the sheer size and scope of trading and in the impact it has on a strategically important resource. There is a fundamental difference between oil futures and, say, orange juice futures. If orange juice gets too pricey (perhaps because of a speculative bubble), we can easily switch to apple juice. The same does not hold with oil. Higher oil prices act like a choke-chain on the economy, dragging down profits for ordinary businesses and depressing investment.

When I started buying and selling oil more than 30 years ago for my nonprofit organization, speculation wasn’t a significant aspect of the industry. But in 1991, just a few years after oil futures began trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, Goldman Sachs made an argument to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that Wall Street dealers who put down big bets on oil should be considered legitimate hedgers and granted an exemption from regulatory limits on their trades.

The commission granted an exemption that ultimately allowed Goldman Sachs to process billions of dollars in speculative oil trades. Other exemptions followed. By 2008, eight investment banks accounted for 32 percent of the total oil futures market. According to a recent analysis by McClatchy, only about 30 percent of oil futures traders are actual oil industry participants.

Congress was jolted into action when it learned of the full extent of Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s lax oversight. In the wake of the economic crisis, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law required greater trading transparency and limited speculators who lacked a legitimate business-hedging purpose to positions of no greater than 25 percent of the futures market.

This is an important step, but limiting speculators in the oil markets doesn’t go far enough. Even with the restrictions currently in place, those eight investment banks alone can severely inflate the price of oil. Federal legislation should bar pure oil speculators entirely from commodity exchanges in the United States. And the United States should use its clout to get European and Asian markets to follow its lead, chasing oil speculators from the world’s commodity markets.

Eliminating pure speculation on oil futures is a question of fairness. The choice is between a world of hedge-fund traders who make enormous amounts of money at the expense of people who need to drive their cars and heat their homes, and a world where the fundamentals of life — food, housing, health care, education and energy — remain affordable for all.

Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former United States representative from Massachusetts, is the founder, chairman and president of Citizens Energy Corporation.

Keeping the Heat On: Fuel Assistance is Not Only Worth Fighting for, It’s Worth Voting For

As we get closer to Election Day, it has become clear that many voters are worried about the level of government overspending since the financial crisis hit. After seeing massive stimulus spending and banks bailed out, all using taxpayer money, ordinary people are frustrated because their life experience tells them that a family or a nation that constantly overspends is sowing the seeds of a future bankruptcy.

The anger is understandable. But rather than overreacting, voters should look to see how the newly installed Conservative Party in the United Kingdom has proposed to deal with its own fiscal crisis. While laying out deep cuts, the Conservatives and their coalition partners have sought to preserve a social safety net by suggesting that the wealthy will have to shoulder a greater share of the burden of putting the nation on sound footing than people of moderate income or the poor. Elected officials and candidates, especially Republicans and Tea Party hopefuls, should learn from their British counterparts.

No one questions that tough spending and revenue choices have to be made to bring the US budget under control. But we have to make sure they’re the right choices. In the case of the federal fuel assistance program, which so many in our state and country have come to rely on to make it through a cold winter night, wrong choices have already been made that will have a big impact on families yet to emerge from the shadows of recession.

Back in January, President Obama proposed a 36 percent cut to the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, from a fully funded $5.1 billion level down to $3.3 billion. The White House also proposed a “trigger” that in dire economic and weather circumstances could provide an additional $2 billion in funding. That trigger, however, has never been taken up by Congress.

In the meantime, the House passed a spending bill that level-funded fuel assistance at $5.1 billion while the Senate approved $3.3 billion. The program is currently being funded at the lower level, with little hope of getting any additional monies if the Republicans make significant gains in Tuesday’s election.

Massachusetts last year received $197 million in federal fuel assistance, enough to help over 200,000 households stay a little warmer. Of the $3.3 billion currently in the total program budget, only $2.7 billion is being released to the states, with the remaining $600 million being held back for emergency assistance. The lower appropriation from Washington this year means that the Bay state will receive $100 million for the entire winter — a cut of nearly 50 percent.

In Boston, the maximum household benefit last year was $1,200, enough for less than two tankfuls [sic] of heating oil. This year, families can count on less than half of that — no more than $515, or about two-thirds of a single tank. The benefit will be further eroded if heating oil prices continue to rise above their current level of about $3 a gallon.

With interest rates low on fixed-income assets like treasury bills, market analysts expect continued huge movements of money into riskier investments in commodities like oil and gold, putting further upward price pressure on all petroleum products.

No wonder applicants are already overwhelming fuel assistance agencies. Applications reached a record level of 7.7 million last year and are expected to hit 8.8 million this coming winter for a program that reaches only about one-fourth of all eligible households.

This is no time to cut the program. Keeping fuel assistance fully funded is not only worth fighting for, it’s worth voting for. Candidates can throw around slogans about cutting the fat and reining in spending all they want. They can afford to heat their homes. Their rhetoric bumps up against the reality of what happens to the poor when politicians cut essential programs like fuel assistance.

I supported a Balanced Budget Amendment when I served in Congress and proposed budgets that fully funded fuel assistance. We can do it, but not if we elect short-sighted candidates who want to balance the budget without weighing all the consequences.

The choices on Tuesday are not just political — they’re moral. If we vote our values, we will support candidates who will preserve a heating lifeline to senior citizens and working families.

Cape Wind: Fit to Spin or Money Pit?

For the last eight years, people across all political persuasions, income levels and regions have debated the legitimacy of Cape Wind, the proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound.

Despite being in the wind business, I have remained on the sidelines because my firm belief is that we have an immediate need as a commonwealth and a country to establish a sustainable and secure energy policy. After countless threats and several embargoes by the oil cartel OPEC and daily reports about the severe and often irreversible consequences of global warming, it is clear to me that we need to transition to an energy policy based on home-grown, renewable energy sources for the survival and growth of this country.

The truth of the matter is that whether we build a wind farm in Nantucket Sound or on an apple orchard in Maine, there will always be those who argue that it detracts from the scenery. I believe strongly that we can’t let our aesthetic differences get in the way of our commitment to achieving energy security and cutting carbon emissions.

Separately, working in partnership with Native American tribes throughout this country on wind development projects, Citizens Energy makes sure that historically significant areas are not disturbed in the process of meeting our shared renewable goals.

However, as Cape Wind gets closer and closer to receiving permit approval and securing a power contract, I think Massachusetts residents deserve an open and honest accounting about the true impact this project will have on our hard-earned dollars and on our economy as a whole.

At a time when American taxpayers just bailed out Wall Street and now one in 10 people are without a job, we must make sure that our policy decisions to make this energy transition minimize the financial burden we place on those who can least afford it. If not, we will be building the great white elephant in Nantucket Sound for political benefit and thumbing our noses at the public’s well being.

Instead, we need to make sure we are promoting development of cost-effective green energy first and fostering a fair, competitive marketplace by providing a framework for long-term industry stability. Unfortunately, Cape Wind fails on both accounts.

A quick comparison of costs to produce offshore wind — that is, wind power built in the water off our coasts — reveals a telling tale.

Electricity produced by offshore wind costs between 15 and 20 cents a kilowatt hour compared to 5 to 9 cents a kilowatt hour for land-based wind, biomass, natural gas and coal. While we certainly need to make technology improvements in carbon sequestration to deal with coal’s harmful emissions, the fact is that the U.S. has an abundance of energy sources that are far less costly than offshore wind.

What seems unconscionable to me is that our political leaders are supporting the most expensive energy choice for Massachusetts residents. At 420 megawatts, Cape Wind’s energy will likely cost $2 billion to $3 billion more to produce over 20 years than if this energy were generated from land-based wind farms.

Cape Wind hides the cost of the project by spreading it among all their Massachusetts ratepayers, who would still end up paying an additional $125 a year for 20 years. For the same cost as Cape Wind, we could produce two to three times the amount of renewable energy from onshore wind and spread the benefits throughout the commonwealth — meaning more jobs for our citizens, more tax revenue for our schools and more opportunity for our businesses.

According to a recent report by the regulator for electric supply for New England, there are more than 100 gigawatts of onshore wind potential in New England — more than 200 times the capacity of Cape Wind. That is enough energy to supply power to over 24 million homes, more than four times the number of homes in New England.

But instead, our leaders are endorsing one project that will supply power to about a couple hundred thousand homes at a steep cost to millions. We recently witnessed the effects that high-cost offshore wind power have on electricity rates after National Grid — the same utility currently negotiating with Cape Wind — signed a long-term contract to buy power at over 24 cents a kilowatt hour from a Rhode Island developer. National Grid acknowledged that this would increase electricity bills in year one and make them escalate over the 20-year life of the contract.

Additionally, this project will not encourage a fair, competitive renewable energy industry because of the massive amounts of subsidies and taxpayer dollars needed to make it viable. A staggering $400 million in direct taxpayer subsidies will go to prop up Cape Wind over the life of the project — subsidies that will help produce a profit for Cape Wind’s executives and shareholders.

While we all acknowledge the need to make sacrifices for our commitment to this energy transition, we can only support this transition on the backs of the American taxpayer for so long. Here in Massachusetts, we contribute to this effort through our electricity bills. But the sheer size of Cape Wind will direct such a significant sum of our money to one effort that it will crowd out future investment in the commonwealth. This means that jobs that could have gone to Massachusetts residents will instead go elsewhere.

Advocates for Cape Wind might argue that it’s no different than the highly successful Commonwealth Solar program, a renewable energy initiative supported by taxpayer dollars. After all, the costs of solar electricity are comparable to offshore wind. But in this case, the state has chosen to allocate taxpayer dollars to benefit hundreds of small projects across Massachusetts. In doing so, Commonwealth Solar provided rebates to more than 1,200 different projects, and the electricity produced by these solar panels is being used at the site where it is generated — helping to save money for our businesses by offsetting the retail electricity purchased from the utility.

We elect our leaders to protect the public trust. Their job is to represent our best interests, whether under the watchful eye of our State House’s golden dome, or within earshot of Congress’ marble hallways. Right now, it seems our elected officials have instead chosen to engage in closed-door negotiations with designs on benefiting their own political agendas, and the bank accounts of a few handpicked developers. They hide behind good intentions, yet they intentionally ignore more responsible, cost-effective energy options. Quite frankly, it is their responsibility to pursue those options first.

We can do better. We ought to do better.

Joseph P. Kennedy II is founder, chairman and president of the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation.

The Costs of Waiting for Big Oil to do the Right Thing

Notwithstanding a shift by big business to become more socially responsible, Big Oil prides itself in being an island of bullheadedness and smugness.

In a capitalist system, rewards of success go to shareholders. But Big Oil has virtually ignored an equally important constituency — the citizens of the United States — who have granted Big Oil the right to extract the nation’s most strategic natural resources. In return, they expect them to act as responsible fiduciaries.

A recent study done at the request of Citizens Energy by the Parthenon Group found that since 1996, Big Oil has increased shareholder compensation by 700 percent — three times the increase in capital spending to find and extract oil and gas. ExxonMobil, the nation’s largest energy company, increased shareholder compensation by 260 percent in five years while boosting capital investments merely 34 percent. Last year, the company cut investments in domestic exploration and production by 11 percent while recording the single largest annual profit in history.

But as energy costs continue to spiral out of control, Americans continue to suffer.

Worldwide oil supply and demand has remained relatively constant the past four years. What has changed is the perception that demand will soon outstrip supply and the exacerbation of this by speculators allowing prices to skyrocket past $140 a barrel and Big Oil to fill its coffers. Given the chance to make a balanced distribution of these “unearned” profits, Big Oil has chosen to reward shareowners over their customers, who struggle to afford gas for daily commutes or heat to warm homes during winter. Every year Citizens Energy petitions Big Oil to provide a small slice of assistance to help keep the poor warm. Every year, Big Oil says no.

When it comes to investing in future energy sources, the story is no different. The industry’s $100 million public-relations campaign touting commitment to new and renewable sources of energy leaves out such inconvenient truths as the fact that big Oil’s 2007 investments in alternative energy sources averaged less than two-tenths of one percent of revenues.

The time to wait for Big Oil to act voluntarily and make investment decisions on behalf of all its constituencies is over. Similar to public utilities, Big Oil should be permitted to earn a fair return based on its cost of capital — about 8 percent over the past decade. Below this point, Big Oil would qualify for development credits currently granted by the US government to incentivize the industry to find new energy sources. Above this, the credit would be denied.

Twenty-five percent of every dollar of profit about the industry cost of capital would go into two buckets. One bucket, using one-third of the funds, would go toward fuel assistance help to the poor. The other bucket would fund development of alternative energy or investments to drill for new domestic pools of oil and gas. A ratchet provision would be applied for every 100-basis-point increase in returns so that ultimately 90 percent of every incremental dollar of return on assets would be allocated to these two buckets.

The Parthenon Group estimates roughly $30 billion would have been available for the poor, alternative energy development, and new domestic production if this system were operating over the last three years. Oil and gas producers would have been subjected to the “tax” in six of the last 10 years (200, 2003-2007).

These funds are desperately needed to help families who could pay as much as $7,000 for fuel this winter and assist millions of poor households who face utility shut-offs with little hope of clearing the balance before winter. Hundreds of renewable-energy projects across the country, particularly wind, solar, and hydro, could become economically sustainable with an infusion of investment from Big Oil.

Our approach pivots off the essence of good capitalism — which is to achieve or exceed the cost of capital. It works in both boom and bust times. It’s a bipartisan solution to a bipartisan issue.

Left to their own devices, Big Oil companies will take every step necessary to funnel all the wealth that Lady Luck and American taxpayers have funneled into their bank accounts. It’s time now to treat every American as a fiduciary to strike a just balance between private profit and public interest.
Joseph P. Kennedy II is founder, chairman, and president of nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation in Boston.

William F. Achtmeyer is chairman and managing partner of the Parthenon Group, a strategic advisory firm headquartered in Boston.

Taking ‘No’ for an Answer

I remember how my father listened with rare empathy to everyone. He paid a lot of attention, for instance, to Putt, an old man who lived in a rest home at the end of Sea Street in Hyannis. A gas attack during World War I had left Putt unable to hear or speak. He spent most every day riding around Lewis Bay in a little rowboat with a five-horsepower engine.

If Putt spotted us sailing to Egg Island for a picnic, he’d pull alongside, and my father would pass him a sandwich, a bag of chips and a beer. Putt would follow the sailboat until we gently beached, and then he and my father would stand together on the sand, their heads leaning toward one another.

Years later, in the same way, my father sat down with Appalachian coal miners — tough men, covered in soot, sharing their aches and ambitions. In a famous photo of him with his arm resting easily on the shoulder of a miner, he could be talking to Putt.

I once traveled with him to a Navajo reservation and watched in the dim light of a rundown adobe dwelling as he leaned over to hear an old man talk about the struggles of his people. I heard Native Americans share their pain as if they somehow knew, because of a certain sorrow in his heart coupled with an active and tough mind, that my father would do everything to help.

So it happened wherever he went — on the streets of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, in a square in Warsaw or in the well of the Senate. And wherever he could, he acted. After visiting Bed-Stuy, he pressed his campaign donors to direct investments into one of New York City’s poorest and most neglected neighborhoods.

After my grandfather had a stroke, he was paralyzed on his right side and could say just one word, “no,” which he repeated over and over. For nine years, this larger-than-life figure, this once strong, powerful man, could say nothing more. But his son would have long political discussions with him. They talked about running for president — the mood of the electorate, the dynamics of the various states. All you could hear from my grandfather was “no,” but repeated with a nuance that allowed my father to discern his still sharp political assessments.

That same quality made each of his children feel deeply loved and made all nine of our dogs worship him, especially Freckles, who followed him on the campaign trail. Robert Kennedy had a wonderful way of allowing others to tell him how the world looked through their eyes. Indeed, so many people across this nation were grateful for his belief in their worth — they knew his faith in the humanity of his fellow Americans.

He lived by a moral compass that others, less certain of their direction, looked to for guidance. Even if what he asked was hard to hear and heed, he gave others the strength to believe not just in his guidance but in themselves.

The truth is, we all just plain loved him.

We Need a New Bargain With Big Oil

During the OPEC oil embargo over 30 years ago, the price of crude rocketed to historic highs in the world market while the controlled domestic price hovered below $4 a barrel. A few years later, the oil industry and the U.S. government reached a bipartisan deal: Domestic oil prices would be allowed to float in exchange for a windfall-profits tax, with 25% of the bounty earmarked to help the poorest Americans who depend on hydrocarbons to keep warm. At the heart of the pact was the recognition that no one had a right to charge whatever they wanted for a commodity that America couldn’t live without.

But federal fuel assistance, created by Republican Rep. Silvio Conte with the help of his fellow Massachusetts representative, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, never received the full funding committed under the deal.

Three decades later, we have reached another extraordinary moment. With crude oil prices tripling over the last five years — breaking through the $100-a-barrel mark in recent months — the top 10 domestic producers have generated an eye-popping $818 billion in pretax profits over the same period. In 2007 alone, the top 10 petro-giants operating in the U.S. generated $1.4 trillion in revenues and more than $200 billion in pretax profits. ExxonMobil is recognized as the most profitable company in the history of global commerce; its 2007 profits of $40.6 billion eclipsed its own 2006 record net income of $39.5 billion.

Meanwhile, extraction costs are still $15 to $20 a barrel and demand for U.S. petroleum products is approaching 21 million barrels a day. The industry has harvested profits it didn’t sow — they’ve come primarily as a result of price runups, not innovation or efficiencies.

The surge in value has made oil executives and shareholders extremely happy, but at what price for Americans? A congressional forum last fall in Boston produced riveting testimony from a mother, an Iraq War veteran, whose husband still serves in the Persian Gulf. Her second child was born sickly and frail, requiring extensive hospitalization and intensive aftercare. But one of the prescriptions — a warm home — proved unaffordable for the young mother, who had to move with her mother to keep her children warm and healthy.

Record tax revenues and royalties from energy companies flow into federal coffers, and $15 billion in taxpayer subsidies (such as, for example, sales-tax breaks for petroleum products) continue to increase industry profitability. The time is long overdue for a 21st century bargain with Big Oil — and not just to benefit the poor.

Energy purchases account for over half our national trade deficit, sending hundreds of billions of American dollars into the pockets of unstable and uncertain regimes in dangerous neighborhoods of the world. Investment in renewable energy as a percentage of capital investment amounted to less than 1% at ExxonMobil, BP, Conoco Phillips, Shell and Chevron in 2006.

What we need now is a clear-eyed acknowledgement that, even as we move toward a post-petroleum economy, we still need oil. Investment in developing new oil sources is increasing, but not nearly as fast as compensation to shareholders, up a whopping 700% between 1996 and 2006 for the top seven domestic producers.

Reasonable trade-offs are possible. Political leaders need to make strategic concessions on domestic exploration or be willing to encourage multinational oil companies to develop supplies abroad, where production costs are much cheaper.

But concessions on expanded exploration and production must be linked to a commensurate industry investment in renewable energy and carbon sequestration. And policy makers should tie leasing and royalty rates on federal lands to oil prices, to ensure that as the value of the fossil fuels increases, so does the revenue to support the rapid development of alternative energy sources.

Political leaders also need better oversight of domestic oil trading markets. Speculation has exacerbated the runup[sic] in the price of oil — as much as $25 a barrel premium, according to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. To reduce this impact and increase transparency in oil trading, Congress should subject over-the-counter electronic trades to increased federal reporting and oversight requirements, as has been proposed by Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) and others.

Finally, our political leaders should work with the oil companies to become better caretakers of those most harmed by rising energy prices. When we at Citizens Energy write to oil companies to ask that a small slice of their profits be used to help the poor — the same message sent by a bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators to the industry in 2005 — the usual response is that the proper source of aid is the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

That’s the same program that was shortchanged at its birth some three decades ago. If the oil industry marshaled its robust phalanx of Washington lobbyists to push as hard for increased federal fuel aid as they fight to retain their subsidies, LIHEAP could expand beyond the five million families it currently serves — less than 20% of those eligible — and increase a benefit that today buys less energy than ever. In Massachusetts, for example, the maximum benefit currently buys about 320 gallons of heating oil. Two decades ago, it bought three times as much, about 1,000 gallons.

More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican reformer and environmentalist, raised the wrath of his own class in taking down Standard Oil and the petroleum oligarchs for the good of the nation. The new social compact did not destroy the industry, it simply managed it for the good of the country.

Twice before in our country’s history, outsized profits by Big Oil prompted government to step in to protect our nation by redrawing the corporate compact with petroleum barons. Such a moment has arrived again. Our nation needs a new bargain with Big Oil that serves the interests of our economy, our environment and our most vulnerable citizens.

Santorum Puts Politics Ahead of Help for the Poor

People across every political party, religious faction, income level and occupation can agree that there is an acute energy crisis not just here in the United States, but around the globe.

It’s a shared crisis that has led to widespread anger toward our dependence on foreign oil and reckless emission of greenhouse gases. It’s also a personal crisis occurring each night in homes across this country when temperatures plunge below freezing.

And many, including some conservatives like Rick Santorum, have recognized that the impact of energy and affordability falls disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor. But unfortunately, Santorum’s acknowledgement of that burden in a recent commentary (“Reducing U.S. oil appetite,” Jan. 31) fails to offer any useful ideas to bring immediate and much-needed relief to families who simply can’t keep up with the price of energy to stay warm.

Santorum condemned the company I founded, the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation, for accepting heating oil from CITGO and Venezuela and in turn giving it to the poor in his community who would otherwise face real and immediate health risks; the same poor to whom he denied additional aid when, as a U.S. Senator, he voted to decrease federal fuel assistance while voting to increase taxpayer subsidies to oil and gas companies making huge windfall profits.

Just ask Helen Chatwick, an 82-year-old widow living alone in a Philadelphia rowhouse[sic], if she agrees with Santorum’s priorities. Ask about her freezing pipes, filling up her tank 25 gallons at a time, and counting pennies to pay for heating oil.

The truth of the matter is that Citizens Energy has been providing low-income people discounted energy, including oil, for almost 30 years. And I never heard Santorum condemning our work when we were just providing natural-gas [sic] assistance to his poor constituents during that time.

His voice only warmed up to the poor suffering from high energy costs in his cheap-shot commentary used to voice opposition to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by denouncing the work of Citizens Energy.

Our mission has always been to provide as much assistance as possible to as many people as possible when they have nowhere else to turn.

And we continued that mission this last year, in writing to every OPEC nation and every U.S. oil company — ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Chevron, Conoco Phillips and others — asking them to provide a small share of their windfall profits to help ease the burden felt by the very consumers, such as Chatwick, who depend upon this commodity to survive.

And for the last three years, we have been working with CITGO Petroleum and Venezuela because they were the only company and the only country to respond.

The real issue is that the United States has different cultural views from many of the countries from which we import our oil. Santorum wants it both ways. He wants to condemn my nonprofit oil company for accepting a donation of oil from Venezuela to help the poor, while giving a free hand to other oil companies like ExxonMobil who buy from countries such as Saudi Arabia, ruled by a monarchy without a free press or any tolerance of dissent.

And while I fully support Santorum’s push for clean coal technology, we are a long way from actually producing any energy from clean coal and even longer from converting the 83 percent of Pennsylvania households that do not use electricity for heat to use this new clean energy source.

What are the poor supposed to do in the meantime? It is reasonable to ask Big Oil to share some of their bounty — which has come simply because of the run-up in prices and not as a result of innovation or efficiencies. In the last five years, the top 10 U.S. oil and gas companies have pocketed $818 billion in earnings before taxes, while investing next to nothing in developing renewable energy.

So if Santorum is truly concerned about the future of American energy policy and its impact on the poor, I would welcome hearing his voice added to those calling for increases in funding the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

If he is truly concerned about the fact that Venezuela has provided more than $100-million worth of assistance this winter alone — which will help about 20,000 poor households this winter in Pennsylvania — I would welcome hearing his voice added to those calling on the biggest U.S. oil companies to contribute their fair share as well.

And if Santorum truly believes that we shouldn’t take this oil for the poor because he doesn’t agree with the policies of Chavez, doesn’t that impose a moral standard on which we should base all other trade relations? I don’t hear him asking for the United States to stop accepting all oil imports from Venezuela or other undemocratic regimes. If he wants to be consistent, he should be prepared to walk because the imposition of the Santorum Doctrine would mean not enough oil to allow us to drive to work, fly to Washington, or heat our homes.

Any moral standard should apply to all Americans, not just the poor and vulnerable shivering by the roadside of the American economy, who can’t possibly wait for clean coal technology to heat their homes.

It is unfortunate that so much moral energy is invested in condemning others rather than offering real help to the poor. The Carpenter from Nazareth knew something about family values — it meant helping the family of a man, especially the poor, the destitute, the forgotten, and the weak, who could use a little bit of compassionate conservatism.

Santorum puts politics ahead of help for the poor.

Chavez’s Generosity

The Op-Ed “Shills for Chavez” (Tuesday) condemned the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp. for accepting a charitable donation of oil to provide much-needed heating assistance to poor, elderly and American Indian families in 23 states — the same kind of help we have provided to poor families for nearly 30 years.

Because oil prices have tripled in five years and the federal government has cut its fuel assistance program by 20 percent, we wrote to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and oil companies asking them to provide a small share of their windfall profits — in just five years, the top 10 U.S. oil and gas companies alone generated $818 billion in earnings before taxes — to help ease the burden felt by consumers depending on this commodity to survive.

For three years, we have worked with Citgo Petroleum and Venezuela because they were the only company, and the only country, to respond. We acknowledge their generosity as we would recognize any company or country that answers our calls to help the poor.

Unfortunately, some find it more appropriate to direct their anger toward President Hugo Chavez by denouncing our work rather than providing some constructive alternative to help about 200,000 low-income households make it through the winter.

If there’s something wrong with poor Americans receiving less than one-half of 1 percent of the 500 million barrels of Venezuelan oil that is imported into the United States each year, then isn’t there something also wrong with American businesses and households consuming the other 99.5 percent?

We do not condone Mr. Chavez’s actions any more than we condone the actions of other foreign governments with which our country has business relations. While Citizens Energy is called upon to answer for Mr. Chavez, no one asked ExxonMobil’s CEO to justify Exxon’s extensive dealings with Saudi Arabia after its judiciary sentenced a gang rape victim to 200 lashes.

If we are truly concerned about moral purity, energy companies that pay to do business in oil-producing countries that do not share America’s views should be held to a higher standard. For further consistency, America shouldn’t import oil from such countries. But be careful — imposing such a doctrine means you’ll be getting out your walking shoes because there won’t be enough oil to drive or fly.

Those who claim to be truly concerned about morality should join us in asking Big Oil to share some of its bounty and calling on our government to fully fund the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The only immorality worth discussing is why America would allow millions of its own to be left in the cold.

Keeping Our Economy Warm

In another season of rising energy costs and falling temperatures, we typically focus on the crushing impact that this deadly combination has on the poor.

Every household feels a little financial chill when oil tops a record $100 a barrel. But for our most vulnerable families, soaring heating costs represent a clear and present danger. This season has already seen several deaths in New England, including two young children who perished in a Dorchester blaze just after the New Year because of improperly used space heaters.

But there’s a broader cost to heating-oil prices creeping up toward $3.50 a gallon — an impact that has nothing to do with bleeding-heart-liberal sympathy for the poor and everything to do with the economic vitality of our region, which is more dependent on heating oil than any other part of the country.

Simply put, our regional economic self-interest depends on making sure that heating our homes never becomes an unaffordable luxury.

When working families who struggle day to day to pay their bills simply can’t keep up with the price of oil, they’ll move to other parts of the country, further accelerating our population loss.

Talk to those who drive our cabs, clean our homes, take care of our sick, tend to our elderly, mow our lawns, fill our food orders and hold down so many other essential jobs. You’ll find many eyeing the exit ramp from New England. High housing costs are bad enough, but when heating bills start eating up over 25 percent of a household’s income, people increasingly look to warmer climes.

While skyrocketing heating costs threaten our economic base, we get little more than the cold shoulder from Washington. Organizations like the New England Council and non-profits like Citizens Energy Corp. Have advocated for years on behalf of the poor to secure increases in federal fuel assistance.

But energy costs have grown so high, so fast, that we fear a quickening exodus from our region and a corresponding downturn in our competitiveness.

Over 20 years ago, the maximum benefit from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), at a time when heating oil cost 70 cents a gallon, could buy over 1,000 gallons with the aid. This year, when heating oil costs about $3.30 a gallon, the maximum benefit could buy about 300 gallons, which would last about two or three weeks when temperatures are freezing.

That means that households getting fuel assistance can now buy only 250 gallons with their federal benefit — one-fourth of what they used to receive and not even enough to completely fill a single tank.

No wonder that parents living on the margins of our economy often must choose between keeping their children warm or keeping their children fed. It is no surprise that malnourishment in children and hospital visits increase during the cold months as families spend more on fuel and less on food.

This year, LIHEAP was funded at $2.6 billion, well short of the $3.1 billion spent on the program two years ago when oil was trading at under $50 a barrel. Some observers would point out that this year’s funding level represents a $405 million boost over last year’s, but that hike is illusory.

That’s because the increase all went to emergency assistance — with its release controlled by the White House, which still holds a total of some $150 million in emergency money. And just this week, President Bush proposed a 22-percent cut in this aid for next year.

Meanwhile, the buying power of the base assistance has actually fallen and continues to go down every time another oil well in Nigeria goes off line, every time headlines appear about more turbulence in the Mideast, and every time unrestrained speculators further drive up the price of crude by going long in the commodity markets.

Stagnant LIHEAP funding coupled with cold temperatures and high energy prices have increased demand for assistance this winter. Citizens Energy alone received over 200,000 calls for assistance on the first day our phone lines opened.

States are now forced to decide whether to increase the number of households they serve with smaller dollar amounts or hold the number of recipients and the amount they receive steady, but fail to meet the growing need for assistance.

In the richest nation, this is unacceptable. In a region uncommonly dependent on heating oil, this is devastating.

Given the extraordinary cost increases in fuel, LIHEAP needs equally extraordinary increases in funding just to provide the bare minimum for those in need. And the federal government has a critical role to play and obligation in keeping its citizens safe during the winter season.

To begin with, Congress should pass an emergency LIHEAP appropriation to bring funding levels to the maximum $5 billion authorized for the program. Secondly, President Bush should immediately release the remaining $150 million in emergency funds.

In addition, we need a broad public appeal to the generosity of American businesses and families to donate funds to help those in need this winter.

In New England, such companies as State Street Bank, Citizens Bank and Bank of America have made sizable contributions to Citizens Energy’s Oil Heat Fund, which provides assistance to additional families in need. Donations from other companies and interested individuals would help bridge the widening gap between available resources and the heating needs of struggling families.

However, private charity cannot and will not absolve the federal government of its responsibility at a time when royalties and tax revenues from energy companies are swelling the federal coffers. Keeping the heat on in the homes of the poor is not just good for our families — it’s also good for our New England economy.

The Heat or Eat Dilemma

The all-too-thin baby on the pediatric exam table does not know that oil prices recently topped $80 a barrel. With almost no fat on his malnourished body, he is unable to tolerate for even a brief period being undressed by his doctor.

His mother wonders how she will keep the house warm, food cooked, and lights on through the coming winter for the boy and his sister, while making sure that they have enough to eat. She is not alone in her anxiety. The price of heating oil is projected to exceed $3 per gallon this winter, and electricity and natural gas costs remain high. Last week, heating oil prices in Massachusetts reached their highest levels ever at $2.72 per gallon, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. Between March and May, 1.2 million households had their electricity shut off due to last winter’s overdue energy bills.

A new report by the Children’s Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program demonstrates that this “heat or eat dilemma” was depressingly familiar to America’s poor and near-poor families and their doctors.

Federal research shows that while both rich and poor families increase their expenditures on home fuel during the winter, poor families offset this cost through decreasing food purchases, with an average 10 percent decrease in caloric intake. Parents know that children can freeze to death more quickly than they starve to death, and so most decrease food purchases first to pay for heat. Many inevitably sacrifice on both fronts, living with food scarcity while heating their homes with cooking stoves and space heaters, both of which dramatically increase the risk of fires, burns, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

These untenable choices wreak havoc on the health of children. Babies and toddlers lose body heat more rapidly than older children and adults because of their higher surface area-to-mass ratio. When babies’ bodies have to divert already-scarce calories to maintain body heat, cold and hunger intertwine to jeopardize their health and growth as well as their future ability to learn and relate to others.

The health effects of energy insecurity surface in emergency rooms at hospitals like Boston Medical Center during the cold of winter. Medical researchers found a 30 percent increase in the number of underweight infants and toddlers in the BMC emergency room in the three months after the coldest months compared with the rest of the year.

Pediatric researchers have identified a preventive medicine that works to soften the blow of this annual epidemic. Young children in poor families who receive energy assistance through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program are 32 percent less likely to require admission to the hospital on the day of their visit to the emergency room than eligible families who do not receive LIHEAP.

Unfortunately, despite LIHEAP’s effectiveness in helping keep children warm and healthy, it is unavailable to most who need it. Inadequate funding, skyrocketing energy costs, and a growing number of eligible families have shrunk the proportion receiving assistance to 16 percent. Even for those who receive help, the size of the average grant is steadily decreasing each year. A 250-gallon tank of heating oil lasts for approximately four to six weeks when temperatures are freezing and costs about $600 to fill. The national average yearly LIHEAP assistance grant is about $314.

So why aren’t policy makers following the doctor’s orders? Some tell us there is no money in the till; the Bush administration’s proposed budget this year would cut LIHEAP by 44 percent compared with funding just two years ago. And yet, the federal government collected $10 billion dollars in royalties from oil and gas companies in fiscal 2006 – a small fraction of the $77 billion that oil and gas companies received from the sale of oil and gas produced from federal lands and waters.

In addition, with crude oil prices lingering around $80 a barrel, the federal government takes in billions more in tax revenues on the sale of oil, as well as revenues from the sale of oil and gas leases on federal lands and in federal waters. Earlier this month, a Department of the Interior sale of offshore oil and natural gas leases in the Central Gulf of Mexico netted another $2.9 billion, the second highest sale in US offshore leasing history. A portion of all of these federal oil and gas revenues could fully fund programs that help children stay warm and healthy.

Policy makers should pledge to fully fund LIHEAP, at the $5.1 billion level for which it is authorized, support additional consumer shut-off protections, and avoid unnecessary budgetary trade-offs that put already disadvantaged children at risk. These steps would help ensure that America’s children do not suffer through the freezing temperatures of winter.

Energy insecurity compromises a child’s health and development. With more resources than any other nation on earth, we owe it to all our children to provide fuel for a healthy future. Our children should not run on empty.

Dr. Deborah A. Frank is director of the Grow Clinic for Children and principal investigator of the Children’s Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program at Boston Medical Center. Joseph P. Kennedy II is chairman and president of Citizens Energy Corp.