By Kathianne Boniello
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged the Clinton administration again Monday to release oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to slow rapidly increasing heating oil prices in Queens and the rest of the state.
New York state had the highest heating oil prices in the country this week, with costs approaching $2 a gallon from $1.33 in mid-January. Schumer said he had been urging the [resident to release oil from the SPR since September.
U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) said in a statement that the average home heating bill in the state in January 1999 was about $360 for the month. In January 2000 it was expected to be about $680. About 3 million of the state's 6.8 million households use oil to heat their homes.
Schumer blamed several factors for the rapid price increase, including supply cuts by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, acute heating oil shortages, and the recent arctic temperatures that have blanketed the area.
“In the past two weeks I have received well over 500 calls from constituents who are overwhelmed by outrageously high fuel bills,” Schumer said in a statement. “They are paying twice as much to heat their homes as they did a month ago and there is no relief in sight unless we release part of our well-stocked strategic oil reserve.”
Jules Polonetsky, commissioner of the city Department of Consumer Affairs, said heating oil prices have hit a 10-year high.
“People are really starting to feel the rising prices,” Polonetsky said in a telephone interview. “The combination of OPEC limiting production and the week of cold weather have sent oil prices soaring.”
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was created in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo to give the United States a source of crude oil to draw on when oil prices rise drastically. There are about 570 million barrels of oil in the reserves, Schumer's office said.
Ackerman joined the growing chorus of Queens politicians urging Clinton to release oil reserves Friday, and introduced legislation that would give the U.S. energy secretary more power over the reserves.
The proposed legislation would give the energy secretary “greater authority to release crude from the reserve when oil and gas prices rise sharply because of anti-competitive activity,” a statement from Ackerman said.
State Sens. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) and Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) co-sponsored a resolution in the state Senate last week that also called on Clinton to release the stockpiled petroleum.
Padavan said the rising prices “had a particularly serious effect on seniors and others on fixed and limited incomes.”
Maltese said “we need immediate federal action to increase the fuel supply to reduce prices and additional assistance to help low-income families pay for oil.”
The state Assembly was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the issue Wednesday.
A spokesman for Brooklyn Union Gas, which serves about two-thirds of Queens, said the company had received an above-average number of calls these past couple of weeks from consumers interested in switching from oil to gas heat.
Gov. George Pataki also requested that the president release about $300 million in federal emergency Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds. The state could qualify for up to $40 million of the LIHEAP money, Pataki said.
About half of the 1.5 million families who receive LIHEAP funds live in the state, Pataki's office said.
Polonetsky said consumers could reduce their heating bills by installing minor insulation around doors and windows.
“They could knock $30 to $40 off their monthly bills with minimal insulation,” he said. “When prices are this high, it really makes sense.”
The commissioner also said that if consumers find heating oil carriers who are not sticking to prices contracted before the current round of hikes, they can be reported to the Department of Consumer Affairs at (212) 487-4444.
Polonetsky said consumers could also shop around for competitive prices because some suppliers may have locked in prices before the increases hit.