The White House on Thursday launched an effort to help with the higher cost of home heating this year, flagging funds allocated in the COVID relief bill that can be used to help lower-income Americans to pay utility bills and calling on energy companies to work with vulnerable households.
As temperatures drop, heating bills are looking to be about 50% more expensive than usual, as energy prices in the U.S. are at or near multi-year highs, according to federal data.
The Biden administration on Thursday highlighted resources in the American Rescue Plan that states and localities can use to help families facing higher energy costs: the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which was doubly funded by the COVID bill, and the emergency rental assistance program, which can also be used for utility bills.
They also called on utility companies to work to get qualified residents financial assistance and to delay electricity shutoffs while people apply for benefits.
Top administration and state officials gathered for a public meeting on Thursday to brief local government officials on how to approach home heating with federal help.
“We have unprecedented resources to address these higher winter heating costs,” said Gene Sperling, who oversees the COVID relief spending for the president. “And we want to ensure unprecedented commitment to making sure those dollars reach as many hard-pressed families as possible in a timely way.”
Governors on the call from northern states talked about ways that they had implemented financial aid for utilities: Maine Governor Janet Mills, for example, said her state actively filled fuel tanks before winter using federal funds. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont coordinated robocalls to people around his state who were behind on their energy bills to let them know about relief programs.
The American Rescue Plan, which became law in March, included $4.5 billion for LIHEAP on top of the $3 to 4 billion it receives annually. And the Emergency Rental Assistance program, which got $21.5 billion, can be used for both rent and utility payments.
Officials pointed to the higher cost of gasoline around the world as a major driver of higher heating costs.
“What we're seeing right now is a global mismatch of supply and demand. Oil production is lagging behind as the rest of the economy is roaring back to life after last year’s shut down,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
Granholm said fossil fuel companies were prioritizing shareholders over lowering costs, despite a recent increase in profits.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate oil and gas companies over possible “illegal conduct” related to rising prices nationwide.
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have blamed COVID relief spending and the Biden administration’s climate policies for the rise in energy costs and overall inflation.
“For many of my constituents, this is a choice, in some cases, between putting food on the table and staying warm,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, earlier Thursday. “This was created by this administration by dumping almost $2 trillion on the economy through the American Rescue Plan.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said the costs were especially impacting her constituents to the north, and she said climate policies could also take into account the need for traditional energy sources, like gas.
“This is a reality for Alaskans that they are facing every day when they wake up,” she said. “Let's figure out how we are working to keep our energy affordable. We can do this at the same time that we're working to reduce our emissions. We can be responsible that way.”
The Biden administration on Thursday also committed to providing state and local governments technical assistance throughout the winter as they implement the federal aid.
And the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees LIHEAP, is urging officials to consider automatically making payments to households who qualified for the program in the past while also seeking out Americans who may be newly eligible due to the pandemic’s impact.
“It's hard to overstate the impact the program has had,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Each year it saves lives. Each year, it continues to be what people count on.”
“Because this winter, no one should have to choose between heat and food,” he added.