Venezuela to expand cut-rate heating oil

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Venezuela will expand its discounted oil program for poor New Englanders next winter under a politically sensitive new deal brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, U.S. Rep. Willam Delahunt and former congressman Joseph Kennedy.

The flow of additional cut-rate oil to the Northeast and other states would be a boon to low-income families as energy prices continue to soar.

“It will be a considerable expansion,” said Delahunt, D-Quincy, on Tuesday. He helped to broker the original deal with Venezuela to bring cut-rate oil to needy Americans this past winter.

Chavez also agreed to steer aid towards redeveloping poor U.S. neighborhoods and similar projects as part of a new social fund, Delahunt added, but the Venezuelan leader did not elaborate.

Houston-based Citgo Petroleum Corp., a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, had discount heating oil programs last winter in Massachusetts, New York, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware and the Philadelphia area.

Citgo last winter provided nearly 40 million gallons of discounted oil for some 181,000 households and hundreds of homeless shelters, according to the company.

But the new arrangement is also likely to stoke controversy since Chavez is one of President Bush’s harshest critics. Relations between the two nations are tense. Some Republicans have complained the oil program is more about scoring political points than charity for Chavez.

“A hidden agenda? You people know we don’t have one,” Chavez said Monday in Venezuela.

The Democratic congressman also dismissed such criticisms.

“Let’s not continue to indulge in sandbox diplomacy,” Delahunt said. “Let’s try to tamp down the rhetoric.”

Chavez agreed to make more cheaper oil available during a two-hour meeting on Monday in Venezuela, Delahunt said, but no details were provided on how much.

“He committed to an expansion both in terms of the gallons as well as the geographic,” said Delahunt of Chavez. “I’m looking at the news and there is $3.50 per gallon gas. Now is the time to do it.”

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., also participated in the session with Chavez, said Delahunt. Kennedy heads the Boston-based nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp., which helped deliver the oil in seven of the eight states the program served.

“This is a moment for other oil companies to emulate what Citgo is doing,” Delahunt said. “You can just imagine what their profits will look like at the end of this quarter. Now is the time for Big Oil to stand up and do it.”

AP-ES-04-25-06 1754EDT

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