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Dakotas get federal money for heating aid

BISMARCK, N.D. – North Dakota and South Dakota are getting a total of more than $24 million in federal money to help needy families pay their heating bills through the rest of the calendar year as both states’ energy assistance programs appear in good shape ahead of winter.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said North Dakota is getting about $6.8 million and South Dakota about $17.2 million for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps eligible families pay the costs of heating and insulating their homes in the winter and cooling their homes in the summer. State officials said Oct. 23 that they also received lesser amounts for tribal programs.

The money is for October, November and December. Total allocations for the fiscal year have not been announced, but officials in both states said they are confident they will have enough money to meet demand.

“We worry about what we get every year but (the federal government) always comes through,” said Ron Knutson, North Dakota’s energy assistance director. “We’ve never turned anybody away because of a lack of funds.”

North Dakota, which got about $38.2 million for state and tribal assistance last year, is carrying over $3 million into this winter. South Dakota, which got $25.6 million, also has some carry-over, though the amount was not immediately available Oct. 23.

The Upper Midwest also has gotten good news on two fronts as fall gives way to winter.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a warmer-than-average winter for much of the western and central U.S. in large part because of an El Niño weather event or warming in parts of the Pacific Ocean that affects weather worldwide.

The federal Energy Information Administration said that on average, households that heat with natural gas, heating oil, propane and electric heat all should see lower costs this winter. Natural gas costs in the Midwest, where more than 70 percent of households rely on the fuel, are expected to drop about 15 percent this winter for the average household, because of a drop in prices and consumption.

“If it did go down that would be nice,” said Tarah Jahnig, spokeswoman for South Dakota’s Department of Social Services. “Last year, fuel costs went up so much.”

Jahnig said applications for energy assistance are comparable to last year so far in South Dakota, where nearly 18,800 households got help last year. Knutson said the program in North Dakota, which helped about 16,000 households last year, also is expecting similar requests this year.

Congress is still working on spending bills for fiscal 2010, which began Oct. 1. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement that the government is releasing some LIHEAP funds now so states have adequate funding for their energy assistance programs as the weather turns colder. About $2.7 billion is being released nationwide.

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