Venezuelan government drops free heating oil program that benefited 4,000 Md. residents in '08

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland residents who were hoping to receive 100 gallons of free heating oil through a program sponsored by the Venezuelan government won't receive that benefit this year.

Because of dropping fuel prices and the global economic crisis, Citgo, Venezuela's Texas-based oil subsidiary, has indefinitely suspended social programs including support for a heating oil subsidy for the poor.

Boston-based Citizens Energy, a nonprofit that administered the program with Citgo, announced the news yesterday. About 4,000 Maryland residents received deliveries of 100 gallons of heating oil free of charge last winter. About 100 million gallons were distributed in participating states through the program, which began three years ago.

Citizens Energy Corp. Chairman and President Joseph P. Kennedy II urged former aid recipients to write to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other high-ranking officials to "tell him the stories you have told me of the difference the generous donation of heating oil has made to so many of our fellow Americans," in a statement.

The program was controversial: Some critics said the effort was just a ploy by Chavez to undermine the Bush administration.

Ralph Markus, director of Maryland's office of home energy programs, said his agency had not heard much about the program this year, so it didn't surprise him that it isn't going to be available to citizens.

"Certainly it helped a good number of customers," he said. "With prices falling, it will have less of an impact than it had before."

However, people are still feeling the effects of the earlier high prices. "Once you get behind, it's hard to catch up," Markus said.

Residents had to apply for federal and state energy assistance to qualify for the Citizens Energy program, Markus said, and the office sent applications to those who received aid last year.

The state office received more than three times as much federal aid to distribute to those in need this winter. Markus said that more money was just sent to local agencies that ran out of money for heating oil assistance.

"We're continuing to pay and hopefully the benefit will last people through the heating season," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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