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New Hampshire to Accept Free Oil from Chavez

Two years ago, New Hampshire refused to accept heating oil from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the pro-Castro U.S. critic who once called President Bush "the devil." But with fuel prices rising, well, free oil is free oil.

With the state's blessing, New Hampshire residents will be receiving some of the fuel this winter.

New Hampshire becomes the last state in the Northeast to embrace the offer.

"A lot of people have said, `We need help and we value any help we can get,"' said Amy Ignatius, director of New Hampshire's office of energy and planning.

The oil giveaway will be managed by Citizens Energy, a nonprofit organization set up by former Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy to help the poor stay warm. But the state energy office plans to help Citizens publicize the aid and sign up fuel-oil dealers.

It is just the latest example of how rising oil prices have brought about an attitude adjustment in the U.S. Over the past few weeks, for instance, pressure has been growing in Washington and around the country to lift the federal ban on offshore drilling.

Back in 2006, when Chavez began offering free oil to Americans from Venezuela's government-controlled Citgo, New Hampshire's energy office contacted the Venezuelan Embassy about working out a deal.

But the idea galled some New Hampshire Republicans, including Sen. John Sununu, who called it a "disgrace" and an attempt at grandstanding by Chavez, and Democratic Gov. John Lynch squelched the effort.

This year, though, "the state's role is to make sure people are aware of the program," Lynch spokesman Colin Manning said.

Chavez's supporters defend the heating oil program as another example of a generous deed by a president leading a socialist revolution for the poor. Some Chavez critics have charged that he is trying to embarrass the Bush administration and curry favor with the American public.

But a lot has changed over the past two years. Back then, heating oil sold for about $2.50 per gallon in the Northeast. Last month, the average price was $4.61, with predictions of $5 per gallon oil by winter.

"The average tank is 250 to 275 gallons," Citizens spokeswoman Ashley Durmer said. "Filling it once is over $1,500. That is unfathomable that anyone can pay that price. If you have to fill the tank four times, it's going to be a devastating winter for a lot of people."

On Thursday, Sununu again criticized Chavez but said he has no problem with people or businesses accepting help from an independent nonprofit such as Citizens.

Sununu and other lawmakers around the Northeast are pressing for big increases in federal home heating aid. More than 6 million New England households rely on oil heat.

Bob Garside, president of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire, a trade group, predicted many of the state's 200 dealers will refuse to participate in the heating-oil giveaway. "In the past, it's been nothing but a ploy for Chavez," Garside said.

Bill Fuller, general manager of Fred Fuller Oil Co., disagreed. He began delivering fuel for Citizens last winter, when hundreds of New Hampshire residents who applied on their own, without state involvement, got 100 gallons free. Fuller said he plans to do it again.

"It's actually a pretty good program," he said. "We get a voucher. We fax it in and get money right away."