Drilling Liheap

Posted July 30, 2008, at 12 a.m.

With heating oil bills rivaling many mortgage payments, winter is not far from the minds of many Maine residents despite the summer’ s warmth. That concern apparently hasn’ t reached Washington where many Republicans are content to hold heating assistance hostage to their agenda to allow more oil drilling.

The need for more money for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is known and immediate. The benefits of drilling are speculative and years from reality.

Still, Republicans in the Senate have blocked progress on legislation to nearly double LIHEAP funding until there is a debate on energy policy — the fact they didn’ t do this when they were in charge of Congress has been lost to the haze of history, along with $2 a gallon gasoline. The centerpiece of that debate has become lifting a moratorium on drilling off the coast of much of the country, which Republicans argue would allow the United States to stop importing oil from the Persian Gulf.

They are right that Congress should have a comprehensive discussion of the country’ s energy needs and how to meet them. Key to that conversation is prioritizing needs and potential solutions both in terms of time and results.

On the timing front, because of the rapid rise in fuel costs, a growing number of residents of northern states will need assistance paying their heating bill this winter. At its current authorized funding level of $2.6 billion, LIHEAP can help about 48,000 low income Maine families and seniors. Last year’ s average benefit in Maine was $750, not enough for one tank of oil.

Increasing LIHEAP funding to $5.6 billion would allow the program to help more people or increase the amount paid to each recipient. Both are necessary.

According to Sen. Olympia Snowe, keeping LIHEAP funding at it’ s current level means the nation’ s lowest income families will get help with only 19 percent of their home heating oil costs — the lowest in history.

Both she and Sen. Susan Collins favored moving forward with the legislation. Enough Republicans objected to stall the measure last weekend.

Opening more areas of the country to drilling won’ t benefit U.S. consumers for a decade, if at all.

According to an analysis by the Energy Information Administration, a branch of the Department of Energy, if drilling were approved this year in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, domestic crude oil production would not increase until 2018 and would peak in 2028. Under the best case scenario, opening ANWR would reduce oil prices by $1.44 per barrel in 2027. The administration also projected that the additional oil from ANWR would likely be offset by decreased production outside the United States.

Similar conditions likely apply to drilling off the United States’ coast, making increased drilling a lower priority than conservation and alternative energy in terms of time and benefits.

Congress should have a wide ranging discussion of energy that includes both using less — efficiency standards and increased gas mileage standards come to mind — and producing more, especially from wind, water and the sun. Ensuring heating oil assistance this winter can’ t wait for that debate, however.

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