Editorial: Home-heating disaster looms (Boston Globe)

THE NEAR doubling of heating oil prices since last year could create a public health disaster if federal, state, and local officials do not act now to protect the most vulnerable. The country had a few days to prepare for Hurricane Katrina, and failed. It has more than three months to prepare for this frozen Katrina, and there will be no excuse this time.

While natural gas rates have also increased since last year, the most dramatic hike has been in the cost of heating oil, which is up 81 percent. Of the country's 8 million households that heat with oil, 1 million are in Massachusetts. In recent years, about 45,000 of them have qualified for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is limited to families of four earning less than $41,300. With the spike in heating costs this year, many families earning above that level are going to have trouble keeping oil in their tanks.

The most important lifeline will have to come from the federal government. Last month, New England's congressional delegation asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lead Congress in expanding both the overall appropriation for LIHEAP and its limits on eligibility. The representatives said that, with both food and fuel costs rising, as much as $9 billion might be needed for LIHEAP, about three times last winter's amount.

Whether an increased appropriation comes in a planned second-round economic stimulus package or as part of a continuing resolution, it is crucial that it be in place in time for the winter heating season. Lawmakers may well need veto-proof majorities to secure the funding - President Bush has threatened to veto a LIHEAP increase.

The delegation is also seeking an increase in funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program. But while weatherization and replacement of inefficient heating units are useful ways to cut fuel use, the focus this year has to be on getting much more assistance to households as quickly as possible. State and municipal officials must also plan for the possibility that aid does not arrive by preparing emergency sites where families without heat can spend the nights.

A frozen Katrina will be measured in hypothermia cases and malnutrition or unfilled prescriptions if the poor are forced to spend grocery or medicine money on fuel. Fire marshals worry that families will turn to dangerous makeshift heating alternatives, risking fire or carbon monoxide poisoning. Both the congressional delegation and the state government's winter energy task force are alert to the looming threat. Now they must act to make sure that something as predictable as the change of seasons does not endanger the health and safety of the state's poor and elderly.