A chilling crisis

Our view: Congress should grant more fuel oil aid for states

August 10, 2008

Maryland families, already struggling with high gasoline and food costs, will face a major new energy challenge within a few months. The price of home heating oil, used by nearly 38,000 low-income families here, is likely to be more than a third higher than it was last winter. Right now, it's more than twice the $2-a-gallon price of three years ago. The increased cost compounds the problems of many low- and moderate-income families who are struggling to pay overdue utility bills and see no relief in sight.

When Congress returns to work in September, it should increase funding for fuel aid in Maryland and other Northeast states where fuel oil is frequently the only heating option. Waiting until this all-too-predictable crisis is upon us is to invite tragedy as poor families risk dangerous steps to stay warm.

Federal block grants fund most home heating oil assistance - $34 million for Maryland this year. State officials last winter used a large share of that money to provide substantial heating oil assistance to 11,000 low-income families but were forced to turn away thousands of others. The Fuel Fund of Maryland used $2.3 million in private donations to help 8,100 other families cope. Now, the Fuel Fund treasury is nearly empty and the state has no idea how much federal aid may be coming or when.

Higher heating oil prices are a particularly cruel burden for poor families because the homes they rent are generally badly insulated and lack efficient furnaces. Some families in Maryland, stretched to the limit by earlier price increases, have been forced to use payday loans and high-interest credit cards to keep fuel coming. Home heating oil distributors, many of them small businesses, are facing their own economic crises. They have to pay upfront for tanker loads of fuel only to find more of their customers can't pay.

Investing to make homes more energy efficient is a worthy long-term goal, but poor families hit by the shock of soaring energy costs deserve the assurance of help now.

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