WASHINGTON — With the cost to heat homes this winter set to jump dramatically because of the war in Ukraine, members of Congress from New England are pushing the federal government to provide more money to help low-income families pay the higher bills.
Lawmakers are seeking an extra $1 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, in the broad spending bill Congress must pass by Sept. 30 to avoid a government shutdown.
“LIHEAP is one of the most critical programs we have to provide heating assistance to seniors and low-income families,” said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat. “With the increase in heating costs, we’re going to need more resources to provide the ability for these families and seniors to make it through the winter.”
No matter how people heat their homes, their costs will be much higher this winter.
National Grid filed new natural gas rates last week that show a typical residential customer should expect a 22 to 24 percent increase compared to last winter. Eversource, the state’s other dominant utility, said its increases for a typical residential customer would be 25 percent for those in the former Columbia Gas territory and 34 percent for those in its former NStar Gas territory.
Heating oil costs also are still much higher than a year ago. The most recent data from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources shows heating oil prices the first week of this month on average were 66 percent higher than a year ago.
And electricity rates will surge as well this winter. On Wednesday, National Grid filed new rates for Massachusetts customers that show the bill for a typical customer will increase 64 percent. Eversource is also expected to request higher electric rates.
“The prices are going up across the board,” said Connie Martin, who directs the fuel assistance program at Community Teamwork, a nonprofit organization in Lowell. “It’s going to make it more and more difficult for families and individuals to be able to maintain their homes and safety over the course of this winter.”
The federal energy assistance program provides financial help to low-income families to cover their heating and cooling bills. Eligibility is based on income and household size. In Massachusetts, a household of four qualifies with an income up to about $81,500.
In recent years, Congress has provided almost $4 billion annually to the program. Last year, the American Rescue Plan pandemic relief package provided an extra $4.5 billion. But that money has largely been exhausted, and similar levels of aid are unlikely to pass this year with COVID cases running much lower.
Last month, Reed and Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, led a bipartisan effort urging leaders of the congressional appropriations committees to provide emergency funding to the program. Last week, 19 members of New England’s House delegation sent a similar request to include more funding in the short-term government spending bill.
Draft bills in the House and Senate earmark $4 billion for the program, an increase of $200 million over last year. Lawmakers are still grappling over a spending bill to fund the government into December, and it remains unclear whether any increase in energy assistance will be included or consideration pushed to the end of the year.
Reed said he had urged the White House to include additional funding for the program in its own proposed short-term government spending bill but didn’t think the increase sought by the Biden administration, $500 million more, was enough. He said he would like to see an extra $1 billion.
“We’re continuing to work as hard as we can to get a number high enough, so it’d be adequate protection for families in New England,” Reed said.
Higher electric bills are coming as Americans face high inflation, which has increased the cost of gas, groceries, and rent over the past year. Republicans have made inflation a major issue in the November midterm elections, and Reed acknowledged some Republican resistance to providing more energy assistance money in the short-term spending bill.
But advocates say the proposed increases aren’t enough. Sharon Scott-Chandler, chief executive of Action for Boston Community Development, said extra funding from pandemic relief bills last year demonstrated the need to expand the program. Her organization is pushing Congress to allocate $10 billion to fuel assistance and also calling for more energy assistance money from the Massachusetts Legislature.
“The question, I think, really is: Is it at a level that can sustain and can support the increases in utility gas and oil rates?” she said of the energy assistance programs. The additional money being considered in the federal spending bill right now “will not cover these costs at all,” Scott-Chandler said.
In response to reports of soaring heating prices, Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin this week proposed the state provide a fund of as much as $50 million to help drive down the costs of home heating oil and offer subsidies for consumers.
Scott-Chandler and Martin said they expect their organizations to receive more grant applications this year. An analysis by the National Consumer Law Center says low-income customers could receive about one-quarter less in assistance this winter than they did last winter.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, said worries about the smaller purchasing power of energy assistance money are especially concerning for New England residents, who disproportionately rely on heating oil and natural gas to heat their homes.
The costs of both of those fuels have skyrocketed in recent months because of supply shortages related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. About 52 percent of Massachusetts residents heated their homes with natural gas in 2020, compared with 25 percent that used oil and 16 percent that used electricity, according to state figures.
“With continued high gasoline prices and high prices for food, we’re worried that many low income families will not be able to afford to stay warm this winter,” Wolfe said. “This is where the federal government has to step in.”