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Alaska villages gladly await oil aid from Venezuela

While some reject principle of gift, others just happy to stay warm

Posted: Monday, October 09, 2006

ANCHORAGE - In the Arctic village of Ambler, residents are paying $7.25 a gallon for home heating oil as the days darken and the chill of winter seeps into the dozens of homes, most poorly insulated, along the Kobuk River.

The impoverished Inupiat Eskimo community of 280 welcomes any help in the costly drudgery of keeping warm,

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even if it comes, as critics point out, from a country engaged in a geopolitical spat with the U.S.

"When you have a dire need and it is a matter of survival for your people, it doesn't matter where, what country, the gift or donation comes from," said Virginia Commack, who at 56 years old is considered a young elder in Ambler.

Ambler and nearly 150 other Alaska Native villages have accepted money for heating oil from Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, repeatedly referred to President Bush as "the devil" in a speech to the United Nations last month. Chavez has also called Bush a "terrorist," and denounced the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The Venezuelan government, through its Texas-based oil company Citgo, plans to buy 100 gallons of heating oil this winter for each of more than 12,000 households in rural Alaska.

The donation has refocused attention on the rampant and longstanding problems in the oil-rich state's Native villages, where poverty, fuel prices, unemployment and unchecked crime far surpass national averages.

For years, Alaska Natives have reproached the state and federal governments for sending too little money to their tiny, far-flung communities. Many lie at least 100 miles off the state's skeletal road system in climates where winter temperatures routinely plummet far below zero. Fuel and grocery prices are bloated by the high costs of long-distance shipping by small plane and barge.

"It's pretty clear that the people need help and they're not going to get it here," said Steve Sumida, deputy director for the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council in Anchorage. "Who else is providing the assistance?"

A recent editorial in the Anchorage Daily News, the state's largest newspaper, bashed the Legislature's decision in March to reject an $8.8 million state supplement to a federal program that helps poor Alaskans with home heating costs. The program has not kept pace with inflation and rising fuel costs over the past decade.

"It's embarrassing that residents in a state with so much oil wealth should be looking to a foreign nation for help," the Sept. 26, editorial said. "It's hard to blame villagers for accepting the gift."

Senate Finance Co-Chairman Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said at the time that the request was cut because it would be unsustainable should oil prices drop.

State revenue burgeoned this year as oil prices peaked to an all-time high of more than $70 a barrel. In 2005, 86 percent of the general fund, or $2.8 billion, came from oil, according to the state Department of Revenue. That does not include the oil royalty check sent each year to nearly every Alaska resident.

A spokesman for Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski said the governor believes the donation is a political ploy to undermine Americans' faith in their government, however, it's up to each village to make their own decision on the offer.

"It seems like a very strange irony that we produce the oil and yet every year there seems to be a chronic problem in getting the fuel to people that need it," John Manly said. "Governor Murkowski has tried to do that, but obviously there's still some work to be done. It's not an easy job to keep up with rising costs.

Of the communities tagged to receive the money in November all but a handful have accepted. Officials in four villages in the Aleutian and Pribilof islands rejected the offer because Chavez's comments offended them, but most recipients say survival trumps the faraway political fracas.

On the Net:

Citgo Low-cost Heating Oil Program: http://www.citgo.com/CommunityInvolvement/HeatingOil.jsp

Alaska Low-Income Energy Programs:

http://www.eere.energy.gov/weatherization/cfm/index.cfm/state-abbra k

"When it comes to feeding and taking care of your family, you have to compromise sometimes," said Shield Downey, a part-time janitor at Ambler's health clinic. "I don't have anything against our government, but if it needs to be that we get assistance from a different source, so be it."

The money is slated for Tglingit and Haida Indians in southeast Alaska, Athabascan Indians in the Interior and Eskimos along the western coast. The villages that qualify for aid must be at least 75 percent Alaska Native, according to the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council.

Citgo has given millions of gallons of discounted heating oil to poor households in several states, including New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.

Citgo, the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the U.S., does not operate in Alaska, but spokesman David McCollum said the company "wouldn't rule anything out" when it came to establishing a presence in the state.

To avoid the costs and complications of shipping oil to the villages, Citgo will send the monetary equivalent, about $5.3 million, to Native non-profit groups. The non-profits will purchase heating oil for each household directly from local retailers, Sumida said.

Each household in the program uses about 300 gallons of heating oil between November and February at an average cost per gallon of $4.45, according to early estimates by the council.

"A hundred gallons? That's a lot to me," said Jolene Nukusuk, office assistant at the health clinic in Hooper Bay, 500 miles west of Anchorage.

The Bering Sea town has an average winter low of minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit and Nukusuk said she has seen the thermometer dip to minus 40.

"Heating oil is over $5 a gallon here," Nukusuk said. "And it gets really cold."



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