Alaska Editorial: Suspension of Citgo largesse should provide cue to state

Posted: Monday, January 12, 2009

Plunging oil prices have Citgo Petroleum, the Venezuelan-owned company, thinking twice about its generous provision of free heating oil to Alaska villages. The program is on hold for now, with fuel prices in the Bush still sky high and bitter cold making fuel even more precious. Villagers who have counted on the program for the past two years don't know if they'll have it this winter.

Citgo's previous aid came when the state wasn't doing much to help. Due to the anti-American stance of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Citgo's aid offers angered and embarrassed some Alaskans and Americans. Some villages refused Citgo's fuel. Others argued that the United States is happy to have Citgo and its retailers operating here and paying taxes, so spare the angst about taking their heating fuel donation.

The state offered some relief to Alaskans that will make it easier for villages to do without Citgo's controversial aid, even though fuel prices spiked much higher. The $1,200-a-person "resource rebate" paid this fall was more than enough to offset the absence of Citgo's 100-gallon heating fuel gift. The state also boosted funding for a program that helps low-income families pay their heating bills.

What Alaskans should do now is consider whether there is more to be done to help those Alaskans who live in villages stuck with high-priced fuel. Many remote communities had to buy a full winter's worth of fuel months in advance. That means people from Sleetmute to Kobuk don't get the benefit of falling oil prices that Alaskans on the road system enjoy. In Anchorage, gas prices have fallen by about $2 a gallon since July. For Bush villages, no break at all.

We've said before that Alaska should take care of its own. That hasn't changed. The resource rebate arguably takes care of this winter. But that was a one-time bonus to counter high oil and gas prices. The same falling oil prices that have Citgo pulling back will scratch any thoughts of repeating the rebate.

Welcome as that rebate was, it did nothing to reduce the Bush's crippling long-term dependence on expensive fuel imported from afar. So far, it looks as if the state energy "plan" due out this month will encourage villages to pursue energy-saving projects and alternative energy sources, but it won't include a call for any new money to support those efforts. The plan may sidestep the question of whether the state should help reduce village fuel costs through direct price subsidies, as some rural legislators have proposed, or pursue lower prices through creative bulk purchasing and shipping arrangements.

Legislators and the Palin administration can debate the merits of each approach - but that debate should not be an excuse for inaction.

The point here is that we shouldn't need a foreign power with its own agenda to help our citizens in need. Fuel from Chavez burns like any other, but Alaskans shouldn't depend on it to keep warm.

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