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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 16 November 2005

Low-income Oregonians will get more financial help paying their heating bills and weatherizing their homes this winter, due to increased state aid.

The money — between $10 million and $15 million — comes from settlement payments from energy companies investigated for electricity price manipulation during the Western energy crisis of 2000-01.

Given the dramatic rise in home heating costs in recent years, "We believe this is the best way we can help," said Kevin Neely, a spokesperson for the Oregon attorney general's office.

County-based community action agencies, which administer many of the energy assistance programs, say they welcome any additional help. More people have requested help than they can afford, agency directors say, and the situation has worsened as energy prices have climbed.

Last year, just 20 percent of those eligible for state and federal assistance programs received help before the money ran out.

Energy bills in the Northwest jump during the winter months as consumers turn up their thermostats. A typical household heating with natural gas consumes 59 therms during the summer and 122 therms during the winter months.

Natural gas prices have seen the most dramatic increases in recent months. Northwest Natural Gas, which accounts for 80 percent of the natural gas deliveries in the state, in October raised rates for a typical residential customer by 15 percent.

Most of the money for Oregon's energy assistance programs comes from the federal government and is overseen by Oregon Housing and Community Assistance. Last year, the federal Low-Income Energy Assistance Program provided $16.11 million in funding, beginning in December.

The investigations against energy companies involved in the Western power crisis of 2001 have netted Oregon as much as $50 million, although the largest single settlement — as much as $10 million from the bankrupt Enron — hasn't yet been collected.

A $15 million payment from Williams Cos., Tulsa, Okla., has been divvied up. Most of the money went to ratepayers, showing up as a credit on electricity bills.

Smaller settlements were made with El Paso Corp., Houston; Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C.; and Reliant Energy of Houston. That's the pool of money that will be handed out primarily for low-income assistance programs, Neely said.

— The Associated Press

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