Former Rep. Joseph Kennedy has become, in many ways, the face of the home heating crisis. This is the third year that his nonprofit Citizens Energy has received steeply discounted heating oil from Citgo, the state-owned Venezuelan oil company, to distribute to low-income families. TV and radio ads running in the 16 states where the program operates urge needy households to call 1-877-JOE-4-OIL. But critics argue that the Citgo-paid publicity also gives controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has called President Bush "the devil," an opportunity to burnish his image. Kennedy challenged the critics and the oil companies in a talk with U.S. News. Excerpts:
How does the need today compare with when you first started Citizens Energy in 1979?
It has just gotten much more difficult for very, very low-income families. I called up several community action directors last week and said, What the hell is going on? You have heating oil prices that have gone up 40 percent in a year. And yet I don't hear any of the state governments declaring an emergency. What in God's name is happening? They lower the benefit level so they can continue to say that there's enough money to help new families. So there is never a crisis. These are the games that government bureaucrats play that basically kind of put a blanket over the problem but not a warm blanket over the poor.
You've contacted all the oil companies for help with the program?
I get a letter back from every oil company executive, and they all say exactly the same thing. They fully support LIHEAP [the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program]. To say you're for fully funding LIHEAP amounts to just a piddling amount of money in comparison to what oil companies make. U.S. oil companies in the last couple of years have made a half a trillion dollars. They put a tiny percentage of that into finding new sources of oil. They put basically zero dollars into alternative energy. And they don't help the poor.
How do you respond to those who say that your program is being used by Chávez?
There are people all over this world that sell crude oil that we put into our homes to heat, put into our cars to drive, put into our jet planes to fly, that are some of the greatest scoundrels that the world has ever produced. If oil is good enough to import for ordinary citizens to run their cars, to run their planes, and to heat their homes, then don't just attack a program that is designed to provide direct assistance to the poor. If it's morally wrong to take this oil, fine. Then let's not take it. And all of those who say "Don't take it" can walk to work, can thumb their way to Florida, and basically deal without the energy supply that they expect the poor to deal with.