Worcester Telegram & Gazette by Jay Whearley WORCESTER -- Citizens Energy Corp. and Distrigas of Massachusetts yesterday announced the renewal of their partnership to help struggling natural gas customer pay their home heating bills. In the front yard of a young mother who benefited from the program last year, Citizens Energy Chairman and President Joseph P. Kennedy II said the renewal is crucial because helping those in need “is not an option, but an obligation.” Unseasonably warm temperatures early in the winter offered New England residents “a good sense of what global warming is all about,” the former congressman noted. More recent cold weather, though, has left the seasonal average at about 93 percent of normal, he said. “Many households are bracing for each heating bill this winter,” Mr. Kennedy said. Fuel assistance, he added, “can make a real difference, particularly to those who feel they need to choose between heat for their homes and other necessities, such as food or prescription drugs, because they can’t afford both.” The Citizens Energy/Distrigas Heat Assistance Program is funded form a percentage of the proceeds of every Distrigas LNG shipment through the company’s import terminal in Everett. The program was launched in 2005. Mr. Kennedy and Distrigas CEO Clay L. Harris explained that the assistance program is available to New England households that don’t quality for federal fuel aid but still earn less than 60 percent of the median income or that have exhausted their federal benefit. Recipients are given a $150 credit toward their natural gas bill. Karen Toukonen, who rents the Massasoit Street home where yesterday’s CEDHAP press conference took place, said the assistance proved invaluable to her last year, enabling her to keep her home sufficiently warm for her three children as well as pay for medications and groceries. “I do not know what I would have done without that extra little push,” Ms. Toukonen said. The single mother said she was told about the program after she sought help form the local Worcester Community Action Council office last year. Council director Jill C. Dagilis said the agency provides heating cost assistance to about 11,000 households in central Massachusetts. She noted that requests for aid are coming into the agency at almost the same rate as last winter. Assistance is available through April 30, Ms. Dagilis said. Also attending the press conference were Worcester Mayor Konstantina B. Lukes, who thanked Citizens Energy and Distrigas for providing city residents “with this unique program.” About 34 percent of homes in New England are heated with natural gas. About 6,000 households in the region are expected to receive CEDHAP assistance this year. Citizens Energy also has a partnership with CITGO Petroleum to provide home heating oil assistance. Eligible families can buy one-time deliveries of up to 200 gallons of home heating oil at a 40 percent discount. The partnership with CITGO drew strong criticism earlier this year from some Republican politicians and conservative political organizations because CITGO is the U.S. distribution arm of the Venezuelan state oil company. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and President Bush have clashed frequently over a variety of issues. Mr. Kennedy responded that no such criticism arises over America’s importation of oil from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia and China. The bottom line, he said, is that heating oil is being made available to help U.S. citizens who couldn’t otherwise afford it. For information about CEDHAP, call (886) 427-9918; for information abut the WCAC, call (508) 754-1176.