Citgo to continue to provide free oil to poor
It looks like you'll be able to call Joe for free oil after all.
Venezuelan oil company Citgo Petroleum Corp. said it planned to continue supporting a program run by Joseph P. Kennedy II that provides free heating oil to 200,000 low-income residents and Native American tribes in 23 states, including Massachusetts, just two days after Kennedy announced that Citgo was temporarily dropping out of the program.
On Monday, Kennedy, president of Citizens Energy Corp., said Citgo had to halt contributions because of plunging oil prices and the widening recession, which hurt its revenue. As a result, Kennedy warned he that he would have to cut the program by one-fifth in Massachusetts and shutter it completely in other states this year, unless he could persuade Citgo to change its mind or raise other contributions. He also said Citizens would lay off 20 staffers.
But it turns out the angst was the result of a misunderstanding. "We never stopped the program," Citgo chief executive Alejandro Granado said at a press conference today at Citizens Energy's offices in South Boston.
Both men said Citgo had been reviewing the plausibility of continuing the free oil program and that the decision-making process was taking longer than Citizens Energy Corp. had hoped. But Granado implied that Kennedy jumped the gun with his announcement Monday, which in turn turned up the political pressure on Citgo and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to make a decision.
Kennedy would not say whether he talked to Chávez this week, but he discussed the situation with several members of Congress and "did what was necessary to make this work." Granado told reporters he talked to Chávez yesterday morning and was given the go-ahead to continue the program.
Kennedy, a former Massachusetts congressman, has frequently touted the three-year-old program in television commercials thanking "our friends in Venezuela" for the donation, and 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 tribes in other states to help members heat their homes.
But Kennedy has also drawn criticism, because Citgo is owned by the Venezuelan government, and Chávez has been an ardent critic of the US government.
Though the Citizens Energy/Citgo program has been well publicized, social service groups point out that it is just one of many programs to help low-income families heat their home. Residents who need help paying for heating oil can call the state heating assistance hotline at 800-632-8175.
And other groups also offer help. For instance, the Salvation Army and Massachusetts energy companies run the Good Neighbor Energy Fund to help residents pay their electric, gas, and oil bills. A coalition of state utilities and community programs also runs a web site (www.energybucks.com) pointing consumers to other resources.
(By Nicole C. Wong and Todd Wallack, Globe staff)