PORTLAND, Maine –A Venezuelan-funded program that provides discounted heating oil for thousands of needy Mainers kicked off its second season Tuesday, this time without the blessing of Gov. John Baldacci.
The first delivery arranged through Citizens Energy Corp., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit company, went to Elece Leonard, a 55-year-old woman who lives alone and is unable to work because she suffers from diabetes.
"This is awesome," Leonard said before the oil truck pulled up outside her four-room apartment in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood. "I think this is what the state of Maine needs because there’s a lot of us who can’t afford the cost of heating oil."
The chairman of Citizens Energy, former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, was scheduled to drive the truck but was forced to change his plans because of an injury, said Brian O’Connor, the corporation’s vice president who filled in as speaker at the event.
O’Connor said the Venezuelan-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp. intends to provide nearly 8 million gallons of heating oil and kerosene to roughly 40,000 low-income Maine households at a 40 percent discount from the retail price.
Nationally, the program will cover 16 states and provide cut-rate oil to more that 400,000 households.
When Citgo launched a similar program last winter, Baldacci joined Citgo’s CEO and other Venezuelan dignitaries at a home in Windham to lend his support and celebrate the first delivery.
But the governor chose not to renew the state’s agreement with Citgo prior to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ speech to the United Nations three months ago in which he called President Bush "the devil."
Instead of working with the state and the various community action agencies that administer the federal fuel assistance program, Citgo teamed up with Citizens Energy and launched an advertising program on statewide television last month to spread the word about the discounted oil.
In a statement coinciding with Tuesday’s oil delivery, Baldacci said, "It is a good opportunity for people to review that program and decide whether they want to take advantage of it."
For Leonard, who keeps the thermostat in her first-floor apartment at 60 degrees to conserve fuel, the decision was a no-brainer, even as she deflected questions about Chavez and his relations with the U.S.
"I think it’s wonderful that he’s looking out for people," she said.
The 50 gallons that the Yorkie Oil truck pumped into her tank will cost her $62.10, a savings of $41.85. Under the program, Leonard and others who meet eligibility requirements can receive up to 200 gallons of discounted oil.
The unveiling of the Citgo program coincided with the launching of the "Keep ME Warm" campaign, a three-year fundraising effort by business and community leaders to help Mainers pay their fuel bills.
O’Connor said the Citgo discounts are available to anyone who qualifies for the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, as well as to households with incomes of 60 percent of the state median. Last winter, LIHEAP provided benefits averaging $689 to 49,000 recipients.
Dealers throughout the state have been notified about the Citizens Energy program, according to Jamie Py, president of the Maine Oil Dealers Association, who expects that most will participate.
"Ultimately, it’s the consumer who’s going to determine whether they want to deal with Citizens Energy and whether they want a discount," Py said. "I’ve got to think that if it’s January and I can get $500 worth of oil for $300, it’s going to be a pretty easy decision for most people, not withstanding where the oil comes from."
Citgo is also providing discounted oil under a separate program to 163 Indian tribes, including five in Maine. The company has also earmarked 500,000 gallons of free fuel to homeless shelters across the state.
O’Connor said Kennedy, whose company has been providing energy assistance to the poor for more than a quarter century, had approached every oil company and every oil-exporting nation to see if they would be willing to help.
"The only company and the only country to respond was Citgo, and the people of Venezuela," he said.
Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez was scheduled to attend the ceremony but did not show up. Speaking in his place was Gustavo Cardenas, Citgo’s manager of international relations, who emphasized the people-to-people aspect of the aid program.
"We are more than just an oil company. We are friends and neighbors who care about people in need," Cardenas said.
In addressing critics who suggest that the program offers Chavez a chance to poke his finger in the eye of the Bush administration, O’Connor said, "We’re not endorsing or condoning what was said at the U.N."
But he noted that Venezuela and the U.S. have deep economic ties and said people who have qualms about the aid program should think twice about heating their homes with Venezuelan oil, which accounts for half the supply in New England, or about driving cars or flying in planes fueled with oil from Venezuela.