Venezuelan oil fuels needy city homes

Low-income New Haven residents will be able to enjoy their first full winter of discounted Venezuelan heating oil in the coming months.

The city program — part of an agreement reached between Connecticut and the Venezuelan government in March to provide discounted heating oil to those receiving low-income energy assistance — will continue this winter, Mayoral Deputy Chief of Staff Pierrette Silverman said.

The program will also expand to cover all of New England, she said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced late last year that the country would begin offering discounted heating oil to major metropolitan areas in the United States through its petroleum subsidiary CITGO. Silverman, along with other city and state representatives, negotiated a contract with CITGO to bring the oil to the entire state this March.

Under the contract, citizens who receive low-income energy assistance are entitled to up to 200 gallons of oil at a discounted rate beyond their normally allotted quotas. Silverman said oil companies still earn the same profits, but that the cost to consumers is reduced through the involvement of New Haven’s Community Action Agencies. The program also allocates heating oil to non-profits such as homeless shelters.

State Representative Bill Dyson said the program has fulfilled its goal of lowering heating costs.

“The intent was to help people who would normally have difficulty in securing needed oil for the winter,” he said. “To the extent that this took place, it was a success.”

Silverman said the program saved energy consumers at least $223 per household.

Nationally, the Venezuelan heating oil program ran into opposition from critics who questioned the appropriateness of accepting oil from the Chavez administration, which has been a vocal critic of United States foreign policy. But some city representatives said the benefits to residents outweigh the political implications.

Dyson said critics should not have an ideological problem with the fact that the oil is coming from Venezuela, the government of which is allegedly tied to terrorist groups.

“The U.S. spends a bunch of money influencing policy in other countries,” he said. “I don’t see any difference here.”

Silverman said significant opposition to the program also came from Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who questioned the legality of the plan. Rell asked Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 to investigate the program’s details, but Blumenthal found no legal problems.

“Logistically, getting it set up was a challenge because there were so many players that had to come in,” Silverman said.

Despite the initial setbacks, Silverman said the program ran smoothly once it was underway.

Ward 21 Alderwoman Katrina Jones, whose constituency is largely dependent on fuel subsidies, said she thinks the program has been generally beneficial.

“I think anything that would take some of the burden off of the residents of New Haven that need is beneficial,” she said.

Though Jones said she had not spoken personally with constituents about the new heating subsidies, she has not heard any complaints.

Last year, the program was launched in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine and parts of Pennsylvania in addition to Connecticut.

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