Summit urged on high heating bills

Tuesday, October 18th 2005, 8:13 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) The chairman of a state Senate committee that deals with energy policy is urging Gov. Brad Henry to call a summit to discuss ways to help Oklahomans deal with an anticipated increase in household heating bills this winter.

Sen. Richard Lerblance, D-Hartshorne, released a letter on Monday requesting the summit. There was no immediate comment from the governor's office, but Henry announced last week that he wants to expand the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.

``We also need to call on the leaders of Oklahoma's energy industry to help us find ways to further assist working families and senior citizens living on fixed incomes,'' Lerblance said.

He said experts are forecasting that home heating bills could climb by 35 percent this winter, compared to a year ago.

``Many elderly Oklahomans living on Social Security already have to choose between buying their prescription drugs and putting food on the tables,'' Lerblance said. ``If their gas bills increase $50 a month, they will have another difficult choice to make and as leaders of this state we must do everything we can to ease their burden.''

Lerblance said a sharp increase in the price of natural gas will cripple the household budgets of thousands of Oklahomans who do not take advantage of monthly averaging programs that keep home energy bills consistent throughout the year.

``By bringing together the leaders of the natural gas, oil, coal, wind energy, water power and other related industries, perhaps we can find other new and innovative ways to protect our most vulnerable citizens from the cold,'' he said.

LIHEAP delivered $8 million in heating assistance to almost 100,000 Oklahoma households last winter and a similar amount is expected this year.

Henry has said that may not be enough and he will talk to members of the congressional delegation about increasing federal funding for the LIHEAP program. He also is exploring the possibility of supplementing the federal program with state funding.

Paul Sund, spokesman, said Henry is willing to sit down with Lerblance and discuss the need for a summit. Sund said the governor is firmly committee to increasing heating assistance funding.

House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, has announced he is appointing a task force to look at the problem.

Sen. Johnnie Crutchfield, D-Ardmore, has set an Oct. 26 meeting of his Senate Appropriations Committee to consider ways the state can augment the LIHEAP program.