Editorial: The High Cost of Low Temperatures (New York Times)

The price of home heating oil has dropped from a peak of over $4.60 a gallon, but it is still about 40 percent higher than it was a year ago. That could mean painful choices for some Americans this winter — between heat and balanced meals or between heat and medicines.

While everybody will suffer from high energy costs, people with oil heat — about eight million households, many in the Northeast — are especially vulnerable. Users of natural gas or electric heat from a local utility are generally protected by law from shutoffs, but people who can't pay their private oil suppliers are not.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is designed to provide help for such people. About six million households were helped last year; the average grant was over $300. With even higher prices, the program will obviously need more resources this winter. But a bill to appropriate an additional $2.5 billion failed in July, a casualty of partisan infighting over opening coastal areas to offshore drilling. The Democrats will try again this month when they seek to add up to $2.5 billion for the program to the supplemental appropriations bill.

Some states aren't waiting for Washington. Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, a Republican, called the legislature into special session last month to set aside $75 million in energy aid. The measure passed unanimously. Maine's governor, John Baldacci, a Democrat, reshuffled funds from all corners of state government to provide a $12.6 million pool to help residents pay for heat. Obviously the states can't solve this problem on their own.

If fundamental human needs are not enough to get Congress to do the right thing, perhaps the specter of a worsening recession is. In a recent poll of people 45 and older, more than half said they expected that high energy bills would cause them to spend less during the holidays; 29 percent said energy costs would cut into back-to-school spending.