Administration releases half a billion in emergency heating funds

The Obama administration said Thursday it would respond to a shortage of heating oil by releasing nearly half a billion dollars to bolster a home energy program for low-income residents in states hit by record cold temperatures.

The Department of Health and Human Services is releasing the $454 million in funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to the states. Home energy prices, most notably for propane, have spiked in recent weeks, reaching record levels as frigid weather blanketed much of the country.

National snow depth as of 7 a.m., Jan. 31:


Source: Intellicast

The average price of a gallon of residential propane for the week ending Jan. 20 hit $2.96, according to the Energy Information Administration, up 60 cents from mid-October, the highest price ever recorded by the agency. Prices in the Midwest are even higher; on Friday, prices ended at $4.30 a gallon in the Midwest, down from a peak of about $5 a gallon.

Propane inventory in the Midwest stands at about two-thirds of its five-year average, and is 40 percent lower than this time last year. At the same time, cold temperatures have consumers using more propane than ever.

To deal with the shortage, governors in many states have lifted limits on the number of hours commercial drivers transporting propane can travel. Drivers shipping propane across 24 states can stay on the road beyond the number of hours usually allowed, under emergency orders issued this month.

Under ordinary circumstances, drivers must take mandatory rest breaks after 11 hours behind the wheel. Many of the emergency measures allow drivers to stay on the road for as long as 14 hours before taking a break.

In a letter to state agencies, Jeannie Chaffin, the director of HHS’s Office of Community Services, said the additional money comes after many states contacted the department to warn them of the strain the cold weather was placing on LIHEAP budgets.

Additional LIHEAP funding by state

States in the upper Midwest and the Northeast will receive the bulk of the funding. New York will get an additional $50 million, while Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania will each receive more than $20 million in new funds. Every state in the Union except Hawaii will receive at least seven figures in new funding; Hawaii stands to gain an additional $680,874 in LIHEAP funding, HHS said.

In November, HHS allocated more than $2.9 billion for LIHEAP programs, anticipating that money would be budgeted by Congress. But the cold weather made additional funds necessary.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | January 31