WASHINGTON — Home heating aid advocates urged President Obama yesterday to release at least $100 million in emergency money to help poor families struggling to pay higher heating bills and keep enough oil in their tanks following a harsh winter.
The Northeast has been particularly hard hit by cold weather and rising oil prices, the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association said. In a letter to Obama, the group said many families are feeling the pinch because the price of home heating oil increased from an average $3.12 per gallon at the beginning of the winter to $3.89 last week.
“It’s been an extraordinarily hard winter, and with prices so high, these families are having a very hard time,’’ said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the association. The association is a group of state officials who administer the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating and cooling subsidies for the poor.
With its cold winters and heavy reliance on costly oil heat, the Northeast is particularly vulnerable to rising energy costs. Many poor and elderly people struggle to pay heating bills that can run into the thousands of dollars, Wolfe said.
Wolfe said the average cost of heating a home in New England with oil has been about $2,983 this winter, nearly $650 more than last year. High unemployment and colder-than-average winter temperatures worsened the problem.
Lawmakers and home heating aid advocates from cold-weather states have warned that without additional money, many poor people could face dire decisions about cutting back on other essentials.
The fuel program is expected to help a record 8.9 million households for the current fiscal year, Wolfe said. Congress appropriated $590 million in emergency heating aid funds for the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. In January, the Obama administration gave out $200 million of that money.
Republicans in the House, however, have been trying to cut the emergency funds as part of their effort to slice $61 billion in federal spending this year.
The Obama administration has been hesitant to release the $100 million because of uncertainty on the overall budget, with Republicans and Democrats still negotiating the extent of spending cuts and the government being financed by a series of stopgap spending measures.
Meanwhile, home fuel oil prices continue to climb. Yesterday, crude oil for May delivery rose 78 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $105.75 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest since Sept. 26, 2008. It has risen about 30 percent in the last year.
Advocates for the poor consider the home heating oil program a lifeline to struggling homeowners in the winter. About 200,000 Bay State households qualified for the aid last year.
This fiscal year, the state has received $173.6 million in grants and $8.7 million in emergency funds, Wolfe said.
Given that homes in Massachusetts are particularly dependent on heating oil and that the region has experienced a harsh winter, homeowners here could expect to receive $5 million to $10 million if the whole $100 million is disbursed, Wolfe said.
“This is almost a crisis situation, particularly for the elderly or those on fixed income,’’ he said. “They can’t plan for this kind of turmoil or price fluctuation . . . Where’s the money supposed to come out of? Food? Medicine?’’
In addition to the debate on money allocated this winter, advocates are gearing up for fights over funding for the program next year. Obama has requested funds be cut almost in half in the next fiscal year, from $5.1 billion to $2.6 billion.
White House officials have justified the cut by contending that the administration greatly boosted funds for the program in 2009, when fuel oil prices spiked. The new budget request, they say, better reflects current costs.
Advocates for poor homeowners counter that unrest in the Middle East and an increase of fuel consumption in such nations as China have again boosted energy prices, particularly home heating oil.
Both Massachusetts senators, Democrat John F. Kerry and Republican Scott Brown, have denounced plans to cut the funds.