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Not Fit For Man nor Beast

By Arun Prabhakaran

Everyone in Philadelphia knows that this city is cold in the winter. Clearly, Philly is not in Alaska but it isn't the Bahamas either.   The mercury often dips into the teens overnight and the wind can be howling and brutal.   So, exactly whose interests are served by leaving approximately 6,000 households in Philadelphia without heat in their homes this winter?   What is the basis of such an inhumane policy of winter shutoffs? And finally, whose economic interests are behind it?


We have all seen the prices of gasoline shoot through the roof.   Citing the devastation brought on by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the oil prices internationally have reached all time highs.   As even the casual newsreader knows, oil is the lifeblood of every aspect of the modern world and the captains of the oil industry are some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world.  


Today, as I write, the Alaskan Gasline Port Authority filed an antitrust lawsuit against ExxonMobil accusing them of restricting the amount of natural gas released for sale in the market in an attempt to drive the prices to "historic heights."   It seems that greed has no bounds.


Philadelphia's working families and poor are feeling the chill in their homes.   Blaming the hurricanes, PGW increased its rate by 19.4% in October 2005 after raising rates by 4.9% in September 2005. Philly is not alone. Nationally, the average household " heating primarily with natural gas likely will spend $306 (41 percent) more for fuel this winter than last winter" and those homes using heating oil will "likely spend $255 (21 percent)" more for fuel according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Agency.   


Last winter, on December 10, 2004, PGW's Director of Corporate Communications Douglas Oliver told NBC 10 News "if we had the manpower to shut off 35,000 customers who are eligible for shutoff, we probably would."    That's the public relations department talking and it doesn't take much imagination to guess what the boardroom discussions sound like.


In the past, there was a moratorium on residential utility shut-offs between December 1 st and March 31 st .   In other words, gas, electric, or water service could not be shut-off for non-payment during the winter months.   Last year, however, the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Governor Rendell passed into law Act 201, known as the "Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act." Rushed into law by PGW and other state utility companies, this law lifted the moratorium on shutting off gas and other utilities, including electricity and water service, to households during the winter months.  


Armed with the new law, PGW is now able to shut off service during the winter months to customers whose household income is confirmed to be above 150% of the federal poverty guidelines and also can issue a notice of termination without confirming the household income level, which means that people whose income is below 150% of the federal poverty guideline will have to first know that they have the right to not be shut off, and then will have to show proof of income to PGW to avoid shut-off.    We can assume that PGW will not publicize this information.


The one-two punch of increased rates and the end of the moratorium is shocking and, in many cases, life threatening to poor and low-income families.   To illustrate and humanize this situation, we must look at who is really hurt. In July 2004, the National Low Income Energy Consortium surveyed people applying for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP ) in Missouri and published a study on the effects of unaffordable energy on low income families titled "Paid but Unaffordable: The Consequences of Energy Poverty in Missouri and Elsewhere."   This study found that in order to pay their home energy bills, 46% of households went with food and 45% went without prescription medications to pay their home heating bills. According to 2002 data from Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), of the Pennsylvania low income households that received assistance, "80% of those households had either an elderly or disabled member, or children under five."  


To address the emerging winter heating crisis for the working and poor families, community groups are taking to the streets. On December 1 st , over 40 members and supporters of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union demonstrated at the Center City office of PGW.   For several hours, they picketed and chanted inside and outside the offices drawing attention to Economic Human Rights violations resulting from the shut offs.   The demonstration resulted in a joint statement addressed to City Council from KWRU and PGW official, Steve Hershey.

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