Gov. Mills seeks more federal aid for heating assistance

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Jul. 29—Gov. Janet Mills is seeking additional federal funding for heating assistance this winter, telling federal officials that she has a "serious concern" about residents being able to afford to heat their homes.

In a letter to the secretaries of the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Energy on Friday, Mills noted that Maine is the most heating-oil dependent state in the country, with 60 percent of homes heated by oil, compared to the national average of 4 percent.

That, plus Maine's reliance on oil being delivered by truck and its old housing stock, create unique challenges for residents.

"These conditions make Maine distinctly vulnerable to the increased prices and volatility the global fossil fuel market is experiencing," Mills said in the letter, which also was sent to the state's congressional delegation.

Mills also asked federal officials to expand eligibility for the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program to those who may not have needed it in the past, since prices are projected to remain high throughout the coming winter.

Assistance through LIHEAP is limited to low-income families, with income limits ranging from $30,860 a year for a single person, $59,348 for a family of four to $85,461 for a family of 10. Mills did not offer a specific proposal to expand eligibility.

The request comes on the same day that U.S. oil giants Exxon Mobil and Chevron reported record second-quarter profits. Exxon Mobil made $17.85 billion in the second quarter, while Chevron made $11.62 billion, The Associated Press reported.

Mills said the average price of home heating oil was nearly $5 a gallon in June — down from a high of more than $6 a gallon earlier this year. Still, those prices are the highest on record since the state began tracking heating oil prices 15 years ago. Mills attributed the high prices to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Last year at this time, home heating oil was about half the current price at $2.58 a gallon, according to the governor's energy office.

Maine typically receives about $40 million in heating assistance for LIHEAP, which Mills said helps between 35,000 to 40,000 households.

Kathy Kilrain del Rio, advocacy and programs director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for low-income individuals and families, said they are the ones struggling most due to rising costs of things like food, gas and heating oil.

"Additional support for LIHEAP would make a real difference for families who have the least room in their budget to cope with the effects of a pandemic, supply chain challenges, and war in Ukraine," she said.

Last year, the state received an additional $55 million for LIHEAP as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. That was enough to provide one-and-a-half tanks of heating oil on average per household, Mills said. Without additional assistance, she said the program would only be able to provide households with half a tank of oil on average.

"For vulnerable Maine households, this is the difference between having heating security during our coldest months for perhaps only days or weeks, instead of months," Mills said.

The governor outlined steps the state has taken to switch to renewable energy, weatherize homes and install more than 60,000 high-efficiency heat pumps. But the state needs additional short-term assistance, as it pursues its long-term climate goals, she said.

"Even with this progress, we must take action to help Maine people with the record energy prices they will confront this coming winter," Mills said.