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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Venezuela Touts Cheap Fuel to US as Bush Takes Heat

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By Matthew Robinson

Thursday 01 December 2005

New York - Venezuela on Thursday launched an ad campaign touting its cheap heating oil program for the US poor as Washington faces criticism for doing little to protect consumers from high fuel prices.

The full page ad in some of the nation's top newspapers could irk the administration of US President George W. Bush, which has frequently clashed with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez over economic and foreign policies.

Under the banner: "How Venezuela is keeping the home fires burning in Massachusetts," the ad talks up a program to supply poor residents of the state with low-cost fuel from Citgo, the US branch of the OPEC nation's state oil firm PDVSA.

"The advertisements are intended to inform about this humanitarian effort," Dave McCollum, a Citgo spokesman, told Reuters.

"This effort came in response to the impact that hurricanes Rita and Katrina had on energy prices. It is being handled as a pilot program," he added.

Launched in Massachusetts last month, the program will also provide low-cost fuel to New York City.

The advertisement, which appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and the Houston Chronicle, came out as executives from US firms including Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil appeared at a hearing in Wisconsin on Thursday to defend record profits.

The hearings follow a similar face-off in the US Senate in early November, which critics say failed to get a sufficient explanation about how the companies have made unprecedented profits at a time of national crisis.

US fuel prices soared after hurricanes damaged US oil infrastructure in the Gulf Coast last summer. The high costs have become a political liability for Bush, who has suffered from lower approval ratings in recent months in part due to fuel prices.

Analysts said left-winger Chavez, who has given preferential energy supply deals to Venezuela's South American and Caribbean neighbors to strengthen regional ties, has seized upon expected high heating bills this winter to curry favor among the US population.

"It's a publicity stunt, really. But it does give them some support among US regional politicians. It's not a stupid thing to do," said one energy analyst who asked not to be named.

But proponents of the heating oil program say the former army officer only wants to ease the sting of US winter heating bills in the Northeast, which accounts for 80 percent of all the nation's heating oil demand.

"Chavez expressed his interest in helping the (poor) people," Larry Chretien of Mass Energy, which is helping to distribute the cheap fuel, said.

Oil-reliant Venezuela, the world's fifth largest crude exporter, is already a top US energy supplier.

But relations between Washington and Caracas have degenerated since Chavez first won office in 1998, promising to fight poverty through his "revolutionary" social programs and increasing ties with anti-US states such as Cuba and Iran.

He claims the Bush government has plotted to topple him. Washington denies the charge but says Chavez is a threat to regional stability.

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