Citgo Suspends Free Heating Oil Program for Low-Income Residents

Citgo has suspended its free heating oil program for low-income residents, Citizens Energy Chairman Joseph Kennedy announced Monday.

Kennedy said the Venezuelan government's Texas-based oil subsidiary cited falling oil prices and the world economic crisis for forcing the company to reevaluate all of its social programs, including the heating oil program aimed at 400,000 households in 16 states.

The program, started in 2005 with Citizens Energy, a nonprofit headed by Kennedy, sent 100 gallons of free oil a year to eligible households.

"It remains unclear how long this postponement, if it is one, will last," Kennedy said in a statement on the Citizens Energy Web site. "All of us at Citizens Energy continue to do everything we can to advocate for a continuation of this vital assistance."

Citgo donated 100 million gallons last year, according to Citizens Energy.

A news conference was scheduled for at 1:30 p.m. at Citizens Energy's Boston's headquarters to discuss the suspension of the program.

Kennedy urged those who have been helped by the program to write Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to share their stories. Kennedy said that Citizens Energy will continue to run heating assistance programs for now.

Citizens Energy was founded by Kennedy in 1979 in the wake of the energy crisis of the late 1970s with the goal of reducing the cost of home heating oil for the poor and elderly.

Kennedy drew fire from critics of Chavez when he began the fuel assistance program with Citgo. Critics charged that Chavez, a socialist and staunch U.S. critic who famously called President Bush "the devil," was using the heating oil program as propaganda.

Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., accused Kennedy of working with "a sworn enemy of the United States" and betraying the legacy of President John F. Kennedy, his uncle, who spoke of the perils of communism.

Kennedy responded that critics should hold oil-exporting countries and other trade partners, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia and China, to the same standards.