Millions of dollars in free heating fuel will flow through Alaska villages early next month courtesy of a controversial giveaway program paid for by the Venezuelan government.
The sooner the better, say many villagers and rural nonprofits who appear more concerned about their towering energy bills than international politics.
"The whole town, we've been waiting all winter," said Margaret Schaeffer of Kiana, a Inupiat village of about 380 people where heating fuel costs $6.64 a gallon.
Some Alaska village families, along with people in other economically depressed areas of the United States, have come to count on the extra fuel from the Venezuelan-owned oil company, Citgo. Schaeffer said she uses it to heat her home for roughly six weeks each winter.
Opponents see the Citgo fuel program as a political ploy by Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chavez, to make the United States look bad. An outspoken critic of the U.S., Chavez has referred to former President George Bush as "the devil" and on Sunday called President Barack Obama an "ignoramus."
"I know they're bickering with each other down yonder," Schaeffer said. "We're so far away and cold, we don't pay attention to it."
$8 MILLION FOR 15,500 FAMILIES
This is the third year Citgo has donated heating fuel to rural Alaska. Usually, the company pays for 100 gallons of heating fuel for each household, though it says that number may be smaller this year.
"We are making calculations in order to provide the greatest help possible to each recipient while keeping the program running under the new economic conditions," Citgo spokesman Fernando Garay wrote in an e-mail this week.
News of the latest fuel aid brought fresh questions from Western Alaska about what the state is doing to help, too. A spokeswoman for Gov. Sarah Palin said the governor's team has been busy trying to boost employment in the region.
Citgo plans to spend more than $8 million on fuel in Alaska for roughly 15,500 rural families, Garay said.
That's similar to last year. The difference: Heating fuel is more expensive in Alaska this winter as villages are still living off fuel they bought by the barge-full when prices were at their peak. That means the money might not go as far this year.
Citgo spent $100 million on its heating-assistance program in 23 states in 2008.
People should start getting the aid next month, according to Citgo, with deliveries planned through June.
That's later than previous years, said Schaeffer, who recalls getting the payments in January and February.
"Any time it's welcome. Any time of the year, but then the time we needed it the most would be during the coldest part of the winter," she said.
You can always gather wood, she said, but that takes gasoline. The price? $7.21 a gallon.
GALLONS PER HOUSEHOLD
The delay came when Citgo stopped to re-think all its social programs in the wake of plummeting oil prices, said Brian O'Connor, spokesman for Massachusetts-based Citizens Energy, which manages the fuel program.
The Association of Village Council Presidents oversees the free fuel program in cash-poor Western Alaska, where a food and fuel crisis made national headlines this winter.
Yukon-Kuwskowkim villages welcome the aid, wrote AVCP President Myron Naneng.
"Even if it is from an 'Axis of Evil'" Naneng wrote. "... Gov. Palin and the powers that be are not even trying to take a forceful action to prevent the disaster from occurring again, nor do they care about the plight of our people ..." Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow countered that Palin pushed for a $1,200-per-Alaskan "resource rebate" last year to help Alaskans cover fuel costs, while her team has made multiple stops in Western Alaska this winter and plans to hold a career fair in the lower Yukon River village of Emmonak next month.
Palin traveled in February to the villages of Russian Mission and Marshall with evangelist Franklin Graham to deliver food from Graham's international Christian relief group.
Brad Garness is director for the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, which handles logistics for the Citgo fuel program statewide. He described Palin's trip as "condescending" and a mix of politics and religion that didn't address long-term energy problems.
The trip wasn't meant to be about politics or religion, Leighow wrote, but "simply to provide food aid and moral support to communities in need."
"Long-term, the administration is working through the rural subcabinet with fuel distributors to ensure that villages get revenue sharing and other funds early enough in the year to use some of the funds to order fuel and get it delivered well before the rivers ice up in the fall," she said.
Fuel barges blocked by an early freeze-up boosted fuel prices in the Yukon River village of Emmonak this winter.
Palin has not said whether she supports the Citgo aid program.
The price of heating fuel statewide rose nearly 50 percent between late 2006 and late 2008, according Division of Community and Regional Affairs figures.
The Citgo spokesman said "it is likely" households will get fewer than 100 gallons each this year.