Warm up to Chavez

  • Sunday Opinions
  • By Joseph P. Kennedy II

The record warmth being felt here is a rare gift. But the truth is that for average New Yorkers, staying warm remains a struggle, with temperatures plunging at night and heating prices hovering near record highs.

About five years ago, the cost of crude oil stood around $10 a barrel. Today, it trades around $60 a barrel. The cost of heating oil in New York City now averages $2.61 a gallon, a spike of more than 100% over the past couple of years.

For many Americans, the increase hardly matters. But for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers living on the edge, staying warm is a fight each and every night. It’s no coincidence that after a cold winter night newspaper reports describe homes that have burned down in poor neighborhoods of this great city.

That’s because the needy turn to dangerous tactics to stay warm. Families use kerosene lanterns that light curtains on fire, or overload electrical circuits with space heaters. An elderly woman drags a cot into the kitchen so that she can warm herself in front of an open broiler door at 2 a.m.

These are the stories of hurt and pain and suffering that we at Citizens Energy have seen over the past 27 years while trying to help the most vulnerable.

When the oil industry profits hit a record annual high of more than $100 billion, we wrote every OPEC nation asking for some assistance to alleviate the huge burden of energy prices on the poor. We wrote to every single major oil company as well.

And every single one turned us down.

Everyone, that is, except Venezuela and CITGO Petroleum.

So, in 2005, we began a partnership with CITGO — an oil company owned by the people and the government of Venezuela — to distribute heating oil. The program went smoothly. Tens of thousands of households were severed without any particular controversy.

This year was another story. Our program attracted negative attention this season for only one reason: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s controversial speech at the United Nations last September. A lot of people didn’t like Chavez’s speech. I didn’t like his remarks, either.

The speech led critics to suggest that the oil program to help the needy is somehow un-American.

How is aiding those less fortunate un-American? It is only un-American to hypocrites who criticize a program that helps the poor, but are perfectly happy to drive their cars, fill their boats, fly their plans, and heat their homes using Venezuelan oil. If the oil isn’t good enough for the poor, it shouldn’t be good enough for them.

The fact is that Venezuela — the only OPEC nation, by the way, that continued to supply the U.S. during the embargoes of the 1970s — sent more than 558 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products to the U.S. last year, much of it distributed by major energy companies that ignored our pleas to assist the needy. Why take aim at just the small slice that goes to the poor?

For those who need the most help, it isn’t a question of politics. It’s a matter of survival. Who would choose to be left out in the cold?

Now, thanks to CITGO, more than 100,000 New Yorkers will not be ignored this season, and 25 million gallons of low-cost heating oil will help them stay a little warmer.

This assistance comes at a time when our government has cut the federal fuel assistance budget by a third and resisted collecting royalties from oil companies making huge profits from drilling on public land — funds that should be used, along with windfall tax revenues from energy companies, to offset the burden of higher energy prices on the poor.

When our government fails to meet the needs of the less fortunate while handing out tax breaks to the wealthy, and subsidies to our biggest corporations, when energy companies refuse to help those in need while charging them record-high prices, the message to the poor is loud and clear: “You’re on your own.”

We reject this policy of socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. We refuse to leave our most vulnerable friends and neighbors out in the cold.