Power and utility officials look at lowering some rates and increasing access to drilling to make up for cuts in heating aid.

By Steve Raabe
Denver Post Staff Writer

Frigid weather and reduced funding for heating assistance could make this winter the toughest ever for elderly and low-income households, officials warn.

"In my 30 years in the energy industry, I have never seen a situation more frightening for needy families who are struggling to stay warm at home," said Skip Arnold, executive director of Energy Outreach Colorado.

Average heating-bill assistance benefits have dropped from $550 per household last year to $280 this year because of cuts in federal and state appropriations.

Energy and utility officials at a Friday meeting offered suggestions ranging from greater access to drilling for natural gas on federal lands to support for a Colorado legislative bill that would offer lower utility rates to qualified low-income households.

At the meeting sponsored by Energy Outreach Colorado and the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, officials noted that diminished assistance payments to qualified households were exacerbated by January being 55 percent colder than the same period a year ago.

"These are the low-income and elderly who are often forced to choose between paying to heat their homes or paying for food and medicine," said Patricia Vincent, president and chief executive of Xcel Energy's Public Service Company of Colorado.

John Hofmeister, U.S. president of Shell Oil Co., said at the meeting that the solution to affordable energy is greater development of all resources: oil and gas, coal, oil shale; renewables such as wind and solar; ethanol and energy-efficiency measures.

Hofmeister gave a similar luncheon address to a group of business people at the Denver Forum on Friday.

Asked about Shell's record $25.4 billion profit in 2006, he responded, smiling: "We enjoy making money."

He noted that oil companies need profitability to help the nation achieve energy security. He said Shell will commit $22 billion to $23 billion to capital investments in 2007 and spent almost that much last year.

"It requires that broad an investment to deliver energy security," he said.

Staff writer Steve McMillan contributed to this report.

Staff writer Steve Raabe can be reached at 303-954-1948 or sraabe@denverpost.com.