Spotlight Exclusives

Heating Costs Threaten Low-Income Households, by Senator Susan Collins

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As winter descends this year, heating costs are expected torise dramatically in response to the rising costs of oil.  The federal Energy Information Administrationestimates that heating oil costs will average $4.65 per gallon this winter, comparedwith $3.28 last year.  During the fall, when most families replenish their supply of heating fuels, per gallon prices will be a whopping60 percent higher than the same time lastyear. 

The skyrocketing costs of transportation, food andpractically everything else are taking a serious toll on low-income households.Historically, the Department of Energy (DOE) has provided funding for federalprograms, like the Weatherization Assistance Program, that help make low-incomehomes more energy efficient, providing some relief for these families.  On average, weatherization saves 32 percent onenergy bills, savings that last for years after the weatherizationinvestment.  Unfortunately, the Presidentproposed to zero-out this program for Fiscal Year 2009. 

Along with other concerned Senators, I believe that now isnot the time to reduce funding for this crucial initiative. Not only do we needthis program to remain part of DOE۪s services, we must at least double itsfunding. The National Energy Assistance Directors Association, an organizationthat facilitates state agencies providing assistance to those in need, believesthat heating costs are going to reach unprecedented highs this year. Unfortunately,too little attention has been paid to the effects of rising fuel oil onlow-income families.  I have previouslycalled for the release of contingency funds as part of the Low Income HomeEnergy Assistance Program and have joined a bipartisan coalition to increasefunding for this crucial program to $5.1 billion. 

Unfortunately, to date, these calls have not beenheard.  I recently introduced legislationthat directly addresses this problem. The Energy Assistance Act of 2008includes provisions to double funding for weatherization, offer tax credits tothose who purchase clean burning wood or pellet stoves, provide grants tolow-income families who do not qualify for energy efficiency tax credits andlow interest loans for middle-income consumers, and extend tax incentives for renewableenergy programs. This bill will simultaneously increase energy efficiency,reduce American dependence on foreign oil, and help many Americans cope withrising fuel costs. Most important, it will alleviate some of the financialburden that low-income families carry throughout the year, allowing them toprovide a better life for themselves.

In addition to the Energy Assistance Act of 2008, SenatorJoe Lieberman and I introduced the Commodity Speculation Reform Act of 2008.This legislation will increase regulation of access to futures markets and helpprevent excessive speculation by non-commercial traders who never take physicalcustody of the oil but use the futures markets as financial hedges. 

These are just a few of the hurdles facing low-incomefamilies as we approach winter.  IfCongress, the states and non-profits do not act to help, I fear we will seeelderly citizens suffering from hypothermia this winter.  We must support initiatives that helplow-income families deal with sky-high energy prices.  By combining our efforts, we can ensure thatno one is cold in their homes this winter.

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