Home heating aid advocates say some clients have used up allotment (Associated Press)

By Andrew Miga

WASHINGTON — Some poor families who depend on home heating aid to survive the winter cold are already struggling to keep enough oil in their tanks, heating aid advocates say.

"A lot of clients have used their money already," said Normand Yelle, assistant fuel assistance director at Citizens for Citizens, Inc., an anti-poverty agency serving the Fall River, Mass., area. "We're just hoping it's a mild winter."

The Northeast, which is more reliant on oil heat than other regions, has struggled with oil prices of more than $3 per gallon.

As the record home heating oil prices squeeze cash-strapped households, heating aid advocates are calling on President Bush to release $586 million in federal emergency contingency funds. Many states will begin running out of money by the end of January, according to heating aid advocates.

"We're very eager," said Dale McCormick, director of MaineHousing, a state agency that administers the federal assistance. "I hope he does it soon."

Kenneth J. Wolfe, acting director of the Office of Public Affairs at the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, declined comment on the requests to release emergency money from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating and cooling subsidies for the poor.

Congress recently approved roughly $2.6 billion for LIHEAP, and Bush signed the measure the day after Christmas. It's about $409 million more than last winter, but fuel aid advocates warn that it isn't enough to keep pace with record oil prices.

A typical tank of heating oil holds 275 gallons. The cost for filling an average tank is approaching $900 and that lasts less than half a winter heating season, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents state-run low income energy assistance programs. The average LIHEAP grant is less than $400.

The maximum home heating benefit Yelle's agency in Fall River provides to households is about $865.

"At $3 per gallon for oil, it doesn't go very far," said Yelle, whose agency helped about 12,000 households last winter.

States expect to get about $2 billion in block grant funds for heating aid. Another $586 million is in emergency contingency funding that Bush can give to states.

Lawmakers and heating aid advocates are pressing Bush to quickly provide the additional funding to states.

"It is important we get this money out to people quickly before they have their heating shut off during the cold winter months," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., in a statement. About 30,000 Rhode Island households got LIHEAP aid last winter, Reed said.

Rhode Island expects to get at least $13.5 million in block grant funding, plus additional aid from the contingency funding this winter, Reed said

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said there's no justification for the Bush administration to hold back the emergency funds. He said Massachusetts can expect $82 million in fuel aid from the federal block grant funding, enough to assist 95,000 families. But more money is needed, he said.

The Energy Department estimates heating oil costs will jump about 26 percent this winter. That's an average increase of $375 for customers. Propane costs will rise about 20 percent. Natural gas customers can expect to pay about 10 percent more.

Maine is one of the nation's coldest states. It is also one of the hardest hit by high energy prices.

McCormick noted that Maine homes use about 860 gallons of oil a year, on average. Assuming prices of roughly $3.20 per gallon, she estimated it will cost an average household about $2,750 for heating oil this winter.

That means Maine's average fuel aid benefit of $579 will only last most families about a month. McCormick noted that five or six years ago, the average benefit would cover about half of the heating season.