The natural gas industry suffered a major disappointment last Thursday when a House Appropriations subcommittee approved a modest increase in the baseline funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for fiscal 2006, and failed to provide any emergency funds in the event of extreme weather and energy prices.

By a voice vote, the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education approved baseline funding of approximately $1.984 billion, up by $100 million from the fiscal 2005 funding. However, the House panel did not provide any contingency funds — usually disbursed when energy prices escalate or in times of extreme weather — for fiscal 2006. The panel had approved $297 million in contingency funds for the current year.

The American Public Gas Association (APGA) last week urged the House appropriations subcommittee to raise the baseline LIHEAP funding for fiscal 2006 to $3.4 billion. The APGA, which represents municipal gas distributors, plans to push for increased baseline and emergency LIHEAP funding as the bill makes its way through Congress, said David Schryver, APGA’s vice president for congressional affairs.

He noted that $3.4 billion would take into account the tripling of natural gas prices since 1982, when the LIHEAP program began.

With natural gas prices at historically high levels, “LIHEAP, now more than ever, plays a critical role in helping low-income families meet their energy needs. Unfortunately, LIHEAP funding levels have not kept pace with rising energy prices and [the] increased need for the program,” APGA President Bert Kalisch told Rep. Ralph Regula (R-OH), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee, and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the panel, in a letter last week

LIHEAP currently reaches only about 15% of the 30 million households that are eligible for the federal assistance, according to the group of municipal gas distributors. Since 1981, the number of households eligible for LIHEAP assistance has grown, while the number of households served has declined, he said.

“A $3.4 billion appropriation for the program would spread much-needed LIHEAP assistance to an additional three million homes,” Kalisch told the House lawmakers. The full House Appropriations Committee has not scheduled time yet to consider the appropriations bill, said an aide, but he added that it would be soon.

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