Connecticut’s low-income residents may soon see their heating bills drop as officials finalize a controversial plan to bring discounted heating oil from Venezuela to homes across the state.
Following Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s announcement late last year that Venezuelan-owned CITGO Petroleum Corp. would begin offering discounted heating oil to low-income residents throughout the United States, municipalities across the country, including Boston and the Bronx, have signed up for the program, New Haven Director of Elderly Services Pierrette Silverman said.
Silverman, who met with Venezuelan Minister of Energy Fadi Kabboul in Washington, D.C., last December to propose bringing the discounted oil to New Haven as a pilot program, said that within the next few weeks she expects a contract to be signed between CITGO and state and local energy distributors to serve all of Connecticut.
But city leaders and political experts expressed mixed feelings about Connecticut’s acceptance of discounted Venezuelan oil in light of ongoing political tension between Chavez and U.S. President George W. Bush ’68.
Under the plan, households that already benefit from federal heating subsidies will be eligible to receive additional discounts beyond the existing subsidies, Silverman said. The prospect of discounted heating oil comes at a time when low-income residents are especially pinched for money, she said.
“People have the same income, but their living expenses are increasing,” Silverman said. “Even more as the government has cut programs, we see more people reaching out for assistance because they have no other place to go.”
The contract will also allow social service organizations such as health clinics and homeless shelters to buy discounted oil, Silverman said.
New Haven Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said he applauded the move.
“If we can get cheap oil and help some of our homeowners, it would be wonderful,” Goldfield said. “To the extent that they want to … help some of our citizens in New Haven, I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
But School of Management professor Douglas Rae said New Haven should not become entangled in a program with so many political undertones.
“If I were mayor, I wouldn’t get involved in this,” said Rae, who is also a former chief administrative officer for New Haven. “It is patently obvious that Chavez’s intention is to put a sharp stick in President Bush’s eye. It’s not obvious that it’s a terrific thing for New Haven to help him do it.”
Ward 7 Alderwoman Bitsy Clark said New Haven should not be too eager to jump into a program it knows little about.
“It sounds like a great idea, but probably it’s one of those things that needs a little more reflection,” Clark said. “Making decisions without being 100 percent informed of what the geopolitical aspects of it are or what the internal aspects are historically has not been proven to be wise.”
Chavez, whose socialist government has been accused of supporting Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba, has political motivations for offering discounted oil, Yale Latin American studies chair Enrique Mayer said.
“It’s a political move that is supposed to undermine a little bit the negative images that the U.S. projects about Mr. Chavez,” Mayer said. “That’s the reason why he’s doing it … [and] he’s doing it for other countries as well.”
But state Rep. Bill Dyson, who represents New Haven, said political complications arise in any situation involving the exchange of resources.
“If you can secure oil below market rate, then obviously anyone who can get their hands on it would want to,” said Dyson, a Democrat. “What Venezuela is doing is what everyone who has some oil does, to use it politically, so I don’t see a problem.”
Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 said New Haven is not morally reprehensible for purchasing Venezuelan oil.
“It is certainly within CITGO’s right to supply heating oil below cost, and for New Haven buyers to accept those prices and distribute the benefits to financially-strained New Haven citizens,” Shalek said.
Silverman said she agreed that political concerns should not have any bearing on whether low-income individuals in New Haven receive heating discounts.
“My concern is that people stay warm in their homes,” Silverman said. “You have to separate [global politics from local needs] and say what is the benefit here to New Haven and Connecticut.”
CITGO representatives in charge of the program were not available for comment Thursday.
To date, Citgo has allocated 12 million gallons of heating oil to the Boston area in the first phase of the project, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Energy Consumer’s Alliance Larry Chretien said. Nine million of those gallons were allocated to private households and three million to social service organizations for a total discount of $10 million off the current market prices, said Chretien, whose organization is in charge of screening nonprofits applying for the discount in the Boston area.
Silverman said agreements with CITGO have also been signed in other states in the eastern U.S., such as Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.