INDIAN ISLAND – It didn’t take long Thursday, after the top Citgo official signed agreements to help provide discounted heating oil to low-income Maine residents, for the familiar whistle and scent of a fuel delivery to fill the air outside Rose Scribner’s house on West Street.
Minutes after the last agreement was signed at the Penobscot Nation’s community building, Scribner sat on a chair on her porch in relatively balmy January weather as officials, reporters and photographers swarmed in her driveway. Just around the corner of her home, Gov. John Baldacci, Citgo President Felix Rodriguez and Penobscot tribal Chief James Sappier all laid their hands on a delivery hose stretching from an oil truck emblazoned with Citgo banners to the pipe that feeds into Scribner’s oil tank.
“I’m very, very honored for these people to be here,” Scribner said. “I’m a widow, and I live alone. I have a very tight budget.”
The agreements signed Thursday at Indian Island were for Citgo, the national petroleum company of Venezuela, to sell discounted oil to the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in Maine. Baldacci, who earlier Thursday signed a separate agreement with Rodriguez in Windham, was on hand to witness the signing of the oil company’s agreement with the tribes.
Sappier said that over the next four months, Citgo will provide 950,000 gallons of discounted oil to nearly 1,000 low-income households on tribal reservation lands. The tribes will get a 40 percent discount off the market price, which in Maine now ranges between $2 and $2.40 a gallon, according to the chief. At that discount, the deal is expected to help tribal residents save around $900,000 in fuel costs.
“It’s an extraordinary savings for poor people,” Sappier said.
In Windham, outside the home of Mary and Malcolm Lyons, Baldacci and Rodriguez signed a deal by which Citgo will donate $5.5 million to help low-income Mainers keep warm. The residents, who are in their late 80s and receive help with their heating bills under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also received a planned delivery of heating oil to symbolize the deal between Maine and Citgo.
Under the state’s agreement, the Houston-based subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company is selling 8 million gallons of heating oil on the open market and donating what amounts to a 40 percent discount to Maine. The sum will provide an additional $100 worth of fuel to each of Maine’s 48,000 LIHEAP beneficiaries.
The company also is donating 120,000 gallons of oil to 40 homeless shelters in the state.
Citgo previously agreed to provide discounted oil in Massachusetts and the Bronx, N.Y., and is working on similar deals in Rhode Island and Vermont. Earlier this month, the Legislature allocated an additional $5 million to put toward the state’s LIHEAP program.
With this winter’s sharp rise in oil prices and the federal government’s refusal to increase LIHEAP benefits, Baldacci said Maine called on multinational oil companies to offer assistance to “the most vulnerable in our society.”
“Citgo-Venezuela was the only corporation to come forward and recognize the need that was out there,” the governor said.
The state’s latest weekly survey found that the average price statewide was $2.36, or nearly 50 cents higher than at this time last year, according to the Office of Energy Independence and Security.
At the Indian Island signing ceremony, leaders of the four tribes praised Citgo and the Venezuelan government for helping low-income people.
“We have Passamaquoddys we’ve had to refuse in the past. There’s never enough,” Robert Newell, Passamaquoddy governor at Indian Township, said of the tribe’s financial resources. “This help we’re getting from the Venezuelan government is unexpected but deeply appreciated.”
Bernardo Alvarez-Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., was expected to attend the signings but did not make it because of flight delays. Instead, he sent a statement that Sappier read aloud at the tribal signing.
“We are pleased that Citgo has the resources to be able to help keep people in New England warm this winter,” Sappier read from the statement. “In Venezuela, as in your country, our indigenous people have been left behind for too long.”
Rodriguez said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was motivated to help low-income Americans after learning of the destruction left last year in the wakes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“Citgo needs to continue to help the poor people in the United States,” Rodriguez said. “Thank you for permitting us to help you.”
Critics say Chavez was offering oil deals to Maine and other cold-weather states in the Northeast to embarrass President Bush, whom he has called “a madman.” But Baldacci brushed aside questions about politics and focused on the need to help Mainers get through the winter.
“It’s not about politics. This is about helping the people,” Baldacci said. “Our government recognizes that these are humanitarian gestures.”
An American Citgo sales executive, who attended the event but asked not to be quoted by name, said the company has received considerable positive feedback for the donations but said it was too soon to tell whether it will help boost sales for the company.
“We’ve only been doing this for a couple of weeks,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.