CITGO home heating oil program continues despite US-Venezuela tension

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine – When a historic meeting in Alaska between hundreds of tribal leaders and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales was postponed in September because of an attempted coup by right-wing anti-government forces, so was a ceremony to announce the launching of this year’s CITGO home heating oil program.

Representatives of the Venezuelan-owned oil company had planned a daylong event with tribal leaders in tandem with Morales’ visit.

Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis, who was slated to address the gathering, said he was worried that the entire heating oil program was in jeopardy. The Penobscots and Maine’s other three indigenous tribes were the first to participate in CITGO’s unique home heating oil program when it began three years ago.

“Quite frankly, we have limited resources and we’re probably facing one of the largest home heating crises we’ve ever seen coming up this winter.”

But CITGO’s generous program will continue this year, according to Fernando J. Garay, CITGO Petroleum Corp.’s Government and Public Affairs spokesman.

“The ceremony was intended to announce the launching of this year’s program and its cancellation will have no impact whatsoever on the program. The formal agreements are normally signed later on in the season. The program is run by CITGO Petroleum Corp. to help low-income people. Bilateral Venezuela-U.S. relations have no impact on the program,” he told Indian Country Today.

In the fall of 2005, 13 U.S. senators wrote to the major oil companies asking them to show some “sense of corporate citizenship” by providing heating fuel aid to low-income families in the face of the Bush administration’s cuts in federal assistance. CTIGO was the only one to step forward.

Since then, CITGO has provided hundreds of millions of gallons of heating oil to hundreds of thousands of low-income households, and tens of thousands of families in Indian country. In 2006 – 07, the program assisted 180,000 households, 250 shelters, and 37 American Indian tribes.

“We actually helped 223 tribal communities last year or nearly 55,000 families residing within tribal communities. We plan to continue the program once we obtain approval from upper management and our shareholders, maintaining the same level of assistance provided last year,” Garay said.

Approximately 6.5 million gallons of heating oil were distributed to Native communities last year. The heating oil is donated by CITGO at no cost.

CITGO contacts local heating oil dealers who serve the participating communities. The oil company pays local market prices for delivery. Last year, the entire program cost CITGO approximately $100 million.

The heating oil program is part of CITGO’s overall corporate social responsibility efforts, Garay said.

Earlier this year, the company handed out half a million energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs across the U.S.

The heating oil program will be especially welcomed this year, with home heating oil prices significantly higher than last year. Home heating oil prices in Massachusetts, for example, peaked at $4.71 a gallon in July. Although prices have come down since then, at around $3.55 a gallon prices remain about 30 percent higher than they were a year ago, according to the state Department of Energy Resources.

Francis said his concern goes beyond the heating oil program and its benefits to tribal people to the tribes’ ability to maintain government-to-government relationships in the face of U.S. foreign policies.

In the wake of anti-government violence against the democratically elected Bolivian government, Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg for allegedly inciting the violent opposition protests. Venezuela and Honduras then expelled their U.S. ambassadors in solidarity with Bolivia; and the U.S. indicted two Venezuelan officials on charges of “aiding terrorism.”

“We’re really concerned that the breakdown of the relationships between the U.S. and those countries will automatically mean a non-relationship between the tribes and those governments. And that would be really too bad, because we’re really working outside the political arena on a lot of social programs and those things are directly beneficial to tribal people,” Francis said, noting that U.S. foreign policy definitely impacts tribal sovereignty.

“It affects how we develop relationships, how we determine who we’re going to do business with, and how we’re going to benefit from those government-to-government relationships. But the decision-making is taken out of our hands at this point because those forces at the federal level are much greater than ours and they, unfortunately, are really going to drive how our foreign relationships go forward, whether we want it to or not.”

He said Morales should be “commended” for his willingness to come to the U.S. and meet with tribal leaders to take the opportunity of forging direct relationships with the tribes. But, again, he said, the federal government’s approach can hamper the tribes’ plans.

“We don’t take a position on the government’s policies unless they’re directly aimed at us; and we don’t take a position on what’s going on in Venezuela and Bolivia because we’re so far removed from the politics of those countries and what’s going on down there apart from what we read in the newspapers.”
But the tribes that have developed relationships with countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia can find themselves between a rock and a hard place at times.
“We’re extremely patriotic here. We’ve fought in every war this country has ever been in. We don’t want to sound like we’re bashing on the federal government, but we just hope the people in D.C. and this administration understand that there are a lot of people benefitting and that tribes have the ability to develop relationships on a government-to-government basis through their own processes.”