The irony of it.
Alaska, an oil-rich state with more than $34 billion in its Permanent Fund, more than $2 billion in its budget reserve fund, a budget surplus the past two years -- and thousands of villagers fearing another winter of costly heating oil bills.
All that is ironic enough -- residents going cold in a land with so much oil and money. But it gets worse, or more embarrassing, depending on your perspective.
Several thousand Alaska villagers will benefit this winter from a new government-funded energy assistance program. Not the Alaska government, not the U.S. government, but the government of Venezuela.
Yes, that South American nation led by President Hugo Chavez, friend of Cuba's Fidel Castro and fierce critic of President Bush. Venezuela, which provides cheap oil to Haiti and other developing nations, is adding Alaska to its gift list.
CITGO Petroleum Corp., a Houston-based refiner and distributor of petroleum products, will help pay for heating oil for rural Alaskans, just as it did last winter for 200,000 low-income families in U.S. East Coast states. Venezuela's national oil company, through a subsidiary, owns 100 percent of CITGO (it took over the company in 1990).
President Chavez, seemingly always looking for opportunities to one-up Bush, announced with great fanfare last winter CITGO's discounted heating oil program for residents of Boston, New York City and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard. The program delivered 40 million gallons of heating oil at 40 percent off the wholesale price. The glossy brochures and press releases called it, "From the Venezuelan heart to the U.S. hearths."
OK, it was brash politics from a guy who likes to call anyone who disagrees with him "a lackey of U.S. imperialism."
That probably will not matter much to the Alaska villagers who get free fuel this winter. The plan is for CITGO to contract with Alaska Native nonprofit corporations, with the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council coordinating the program. Since CITGO doesn't have any nearby refineries to deliver its own fuel, it will donate money to the nonprofits to purchase 1.2 million gallons of fuel from Alaska distributors.
The company also is talking about extending to Alaska a separate program to provide fuel to community facilities.
It's part of CITGO's program to assist Native Americans. The nationwide target is to provide 5 million to 10 million gallons of heating fuel for Native Americans this winter. The company is also talking with tribes in Washington and Idaho and may add the Southwest to the program too.
Alaska has a similar program funded entirely with federal dollars. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program distributes funds to needy Alaskans to help pay the high cost of heating oil. But federal funding is at the same level today as it was 20 years ago, which means it's far short of what is needed. Gov. Frank Murkowski this year asked legislators to appropriate $8.8 million in state cash to supplement the program, but lawmakers gave the governor -- and low-income Alaskans -- the cold shoulder and rejected the request.
Good thing for those Alaskans that another country is coming to help.
BOTTOM LINE: If you're cold and can't afford fuel oil, who cares about the political motives of the giver?