Citgo continues support of free heating oil plan
By Nicole C. Wong and Todd Wallack
It turns out you’ll be able to call Joe for free oil after all.
Venezuelan company Citgo Petroleum Corp. said yesterday it plans to continue supporting a program run by Joseph P. Kennedy II that provides free heating oil to 200,000 low-income households in 23 states, including Massachusetts - just two days after Kennedy said Citgo was indefinitely suspending the program.
On Monday, Kennedy, the president of Citizens Energy Corp., said Citgo had to suspend contributions because of plunging oil prices and the widening recession, which hurt its revenue. As a result, Kennedy warned, he might have to cut the program by one-fifth in Massachusetts and shutter it completely in other states this year unless he could raise other contributions or persuade Citgo to change its mind. He also said Citizens would lay off 20 staff and delay the contracts for operating its application processing call centers.
Both companies said Citgo told Citizens in December that it had to reevaluate all of its charitable commitments - a process that was still underway this week. But that’s where the agreement ends.
“We never stopped the program,” Citgo chief executive Alejandro Granado said twice at a press conference yesterday in Citizens Energy’s office in South Boston.
Citizens, which had publicized it would start taking applications on Jan. 5 from people who needed help heating their homes, said it thought Citgo’s indecision meant the program would be suspended.
“We were put in a position where we were unable to take the applications,” Kennedy said. “It took a few days longer than we could manage.”
Since Kennedy said the program would be suspended, Citgo and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have been swarmed by political pressure. The Venezuelan government owns Citgo, the US distribution arm of Venezuela’s state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, which Chavez indirectly controls.
Kennedy would not say whether he talked to Chavez this week, but the former Massachusetts congressman said he discussed the situation with several members of Congress and “did what was necessary to make this work.”
US Representative Bill Delahunt, Democrat from Quincy, who helped negotiate the original deal with Chavez at a meeting in Caracas several years ago, said he and other members of Congress personally contacted Chavez after learning the program was in jeopardy.
“It’s really important to continue the program,” Delahunt said. “In New England, it has been extraordinarily helpful to get low-income people through the tough winters we have had.” Delahunt said he thought the program could also pave the way for better relations between the United States and Venezuelan governments. Chavez has been a critic of the US government.
Granado said he talked to Chavez yesterday morning and was given the go-ahead to continue the program. Citizens said it will start accepting applications on Jan. 19 and expects home deliveries to begin two to three days later.
Kennedy has frequently touted this three-year-old program in television commercials, urging people to call 1-877-JOE-4-OIL. Under the program, residents in 16 states were able to obtain up to 100 gallons of free heating oil last year. The program also provides grants to Native American tribes in other states to help members heat their homes.
But social service groups point out Citizens’ program is just one of many to help low-income families heat their homes. For instance, residents can call the state heating assistance hotline at 800-632-8175, and the Salvation Army and Massachusetts energy companies run the Good Neighbor Energy Fund to help resident pay their electric, gas, and oil bills. A coalition of state utilities and community programs also runs a website, www.energybucks.com, which points consumers to other resources.