Boston Herald by Doug Hanchett Joe Kennedy said his Citizens Energy Corp. is bracing for a crush of new applicants to its low-cost oil program yesterday, but vowed to meet the new demand. “We’re locked in and we have the oil in place today to meet our customers’ needs for the rest of the winter,” Kennedy said. “Citizens Energy will be here and it will be here at that cheap rate. But for the general heating oil customer in the state, they cold face very serious problems.” Earlier in the day, Kennedy kicked off the company’s annual half-price Oil Heat Program by taking to the high seas on an oil barge that delivered 100,000 barrels to a Chelsea distributor. Kennedy said a looming “triple whammy” -- nasty weather, rising oil prices and the struggling economy -- will likely make it a long winter for many families. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts Bay State residents will see a 45 percent jump in heating oil bills this winter, driving the average heating bill up $289 to $931 this year. And Kennedy said there’s been a 30 percent rise in the amount of heat households have had to use compared to last year. “If this week is any indication, you’ve already got a much colder winter (coming),” said Kennedy. “You’ve got a significant price increase...and the final piece is there are just more poor people this year. The economy has slowed and then umber of people without jobs has increased substantially. “We have a record number of people applying for fuel assistance already.” Kennedy said the prospect of a war with Iraq and political instability in Venezuela, the top supplier of heating oil to the New England region, could exacerbate the heating oil situation this winter. Richelle Cromwell of Chelsea took advantage of the program, which offers home heating oil at half-price, last year and sang its praises yesterday. “I’ve been telling everybody about it because it is a really good program,” said Cromwell, a mother of two. “People are under the misconception that you have to have very low income to get the benefits of the program, but you really don’t. “There are a whole bunch of people who are above the income for (other programs) and they probably think there’s no place to turn.” Anyone interested in signing up with Citizens Energy can call 877-JOE-4-OIL.