A Frozen Katrina

As John McCain and the Republicans trumpet their election year boldfaced lie--drill now so we can lower prices at the pump today--they continue to ignore a looming energy disaster with lives hanging in the balance.

Currently, eight million homes rely on heating oil during the winter months, and last winter's prices forced too many citizens to choose between heat, food, and medicine.

According to the New York Times, heating oil prices are now 36 percent higher than they were last winter and bills will be up to $1500 higher than they were last year. As for the 54 million households heating with natural gas, prices are expected to be 67 percent higher this winter. Current funding for the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is below 1980's levels--"a time when fuel prices were just a tiny fraction of what they are now," The Timberjay newspapers point out. In fact, last year's $2.5 billion in LIHEAP funding allowed just 16 percent of eligible recipients to receive aid. Congressional representatives of New England states have sought as much as $6.5 billion in additional LIHEAP funding to meet the anticipated needs of the upcoming winter. With both lower-income and middle-class people now unable to afford this basic necessity--a requirement for security in one's own home--newspapers in the Northeast are sounding a clarion call to head-off the impending disaster.

As the Boston Globewrote in an editorial this month:

The country had a few days to prepare for Hurricane Katrina, and failed. It has more than three months to prepare for this frozen Katrina, and there will be no excuse this time.... A frozen Katrina will be measured in hypothermia cases and malnutrition or unfilled prescriptions if the poor are forced to spend grocery or medicine money on fuel.

"It could be New England's own Katrina disaster," read a Stowe Reporter editorial. "Hundreds of homes rendered uninhabitable, families' finances stretched to the limit, some driven away altogether to take shelter with friends or family. But unlike Katrina, this calamity is clearly visible on the horizon and we have months to prepare."

The Rutland Heraldwarned of service-providers who are already stretched thin:

No one wants to see refugees from the cold breaking into stores or second homes to spend the night, but there will be desperate people that the state's social service providers will be challenged to help, since most homeless shelters are full at present and may not be able to house any more people in upcoming months.

And, finally, from the Concord Monitor :

It will be interesting to see if the prospect of masses of New Hampshire citizens freezing at home gets the attention it so clearly deserves.

Indeed, the crisis has gotten the attention of Democrats--and some Republicans--in Congress, but an effort to respond was thwarted by yet another GOP Senate filibuster. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) tried to increase LIHEAP funding all the way back in November, while President Bush proposed cutting it by $379 million. In March, Sen. Sanders offered a budget amendment that would have rescinded the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest three-tenths of 1 percent of taxpayers and increased LIHEAP funding by $4 billion. Last month, he was the lead sponsor of the Warm in the Winter and Cool in the Summer Act which would double LIHEAP funding, adding $2.5 billion to the program (less than one week's funding in Iraq). Although President Bush threatened a veto (no surprise there, he has also proposed cutting the weatherization program that helps lower-income families reduce energy consumption over the long-term), there were fifty-two co-sponsors, including thirteen Republicans. Sanders called it a "tripartisan bill" with the majority of Congress, the nation's governors, AARP and others on board.

"People in the north understand that it would be inhumane to stand by while seniors freeze to death this winter or kids get sick," he said "People in hot-weather states know heat waves can be killers." In a floor speech, Sanders cited Center for Disease Control statistics to further illustrate the urgency of this legislation:

Historically, from 1979 to 2003, excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths in the United States. During this period, more people in this country died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.... During 1979 to 2002, a total of 16,555 deaths in the United States, an average of 689 per year...were attributed to exposure to excessive natural cold.

But when it came time to vote on the legislation on July 26, there were only fifty votes to end a Republican filibuster--ten shy of the sixty needed to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. The GOP wanted "a vote on legislation that would open up the continental shelf to oil drilling."

"I understand the games that are played in Washington, but it doesn't make the obstruction tactics any less revolting," Sanders said following the vote. "This is life or death. People are dying in the summer heat. People will freeze to death this winter."

While Republicans continue to push drilling as their election year elixir, real pain, real lives, and real security are ignored.

Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation's editor since 1995 and publisher since 2005.

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