This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:
The pre-Christmas congressional battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge inflicted some heavy collateral damage on needy Americans.
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens had crafted his latest open-ANWR measure to include a funding boost for helping the poor cope with the drastic rise in home heating bills. When Sen. Stevens' ANWR measure went down, so did the extra money for home heating aid. This unfortunate and unnecessary political jockeying has left the country's least fortunate at the mercy of high heating fuel prices as the grip of winter tightens.
Congress has a compelling case of expanding the energy aid, regardless of what happens with ANWR. Today's funding level is the same as it was in the early 1980s, 20 years ago. The $2 billion available back then didn't meet all the need, and it doesn't come anywhere close to meeting the need now.
Energy prices in Alaska, for example, have shot up almost 90 percent in the past two years. Isolated rural villages have been especially hard hit. They rely on bulk fuel deliveries by barge in summer, before freeze-up shuts down all shipping. They had to buy a whole winter's supply just as Hurricane Katrina drove prices to all-time highs.
In Kotzebue, for example, heating fuel this year costs $3.53 a gallon. That's up from $1.93 two winters ago, according to Mary Riggen-Ver, who until earlier this month handled the state's low-income energy aid program.
Ms. Riggen-Ver says Alaska's energy aid applications are up by 18 percent over last year. The state is paying 20 percent more on this year's emergency cases due to the higher prices.
A good chunk of today's record oil company profit is coming from the pockets of the country's most desperate citizens. Congress generally recognizes that this year's run-up in energy prices inflicts a heavy burden on the poor and that the appropriate way to help offset it is through the existing federal energy assistance program. Unfortunately, this urgently needed aid boost got caught in the ANWR crossfire.
Approving the extra heating assistance money should be high on the congressional agenda when members return in January.
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