- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

Local oil distributers are worried about Venezuela’s effort to expand its heating oil assistance program into the mid-Atlantic region, but said they would follow their customers’ demands.

Regional heating oil distributors have been divided over whether they should incorporate the program into their marketing plans for the coming winter season.

A major concern is the program’s ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a severe critic of President Bush.

“It puts the whole industry in a huge tongue-biting situation,” said Pete Horrigan, president and executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributor’s Association (MAPDA). “We have to weigh the benefits that the program offers with our patriotic beliefs.”

Patricia Date, president of Rittenhouse Fuel Inc. in Baltimore, said she is torn about whether her company should offer the program to her eligible customers.

“I don’t want to get involved,” said the president of the 82-year-old company. “Ultimately, my customers’ needs will dictate my decision over whether or not my company participates.”

Citgo Petroleum Corp., a U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company, started the program last winter after Hurricane Katrina. The company partnered with the Citizens Energy Corp., a nonprofit energy company headed by Joseph Kennedy II, to provide a 40 percent heating oil rebate to low-income residents in New England.

Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera told The Washington Times Tuesday that his country is expanding the program to offer discounted heating oil to low-income families in 17 states, including nearly 37,000 residents in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Another major point of contention is that the program requires them to give their customers’ personal information to auditors at the Citizens Energy Corp. to determine their qualification status.

“A company’s customer list is an asset — and companies are hesitant to give that up,” Mr. Horrigan said.

The local distributors also see Venezuela’s heating oil program as an unnecessary addition to federal assistance programs already in place.

“The more assistance programs there are, the harder it becomes to keep track of it all,” Ms. Date said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services initiated the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in 1988 to help low-income residents afford oil heating costs.

Officials at the Citizens Energy Corp. denounced the program for not doing enough to protect low-income residents.

“There is no way that those programs can adequately meet the needs of those without heat,” said the nonprofit’s spokesman, Brian O’Connell.

“The need from citizens to provide a heating safety net has increased,” he said.

Mr. Chavez first proposed an expansion of the program during his speech to the United Nations in September, when he called Mr. Bush “the devil.”

The program is to be handled by Citgo and its parent company PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company.

“There has been considerable mixed emotions” by oil distributors, Mr. Horrigan said.

“But each individual member will make their own decision.

“The bottom line is, if someone is giving money to the people who need it,” Mr. Horrigan said. “Who cares who’s giving it?”

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