The Potluck

Walz touts generous assistance amid soaring energy prices

By: - November 18, 2021 5:38 pm

Gov. Tim Walz. Pool photo by Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune.

With Americans staring down soaring energy prices and a colder winter, Gov. Tim Walz and other Democratic governors are reminding people of the billions in additional funding available in energy assistance thanks to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March.

“Without the American Rescue Plan, we would be in a crisis situation right now,” said Walz on Thursday, speaking by Zoom from Finland, where he is on a trade mission.

The news conference addressing rising winter energy costs was arranged by the Biden administration and included Democratic governors from Michigan, Maine and Connecticut as well as President Joe Biden’s secretaries of energy and health and human services.

Republicans have hammered Biden and Democrats in recent weeks for allowing gas prices to skyrocket — more a function of oil production dropping precipitously as people stayed home during the pandemic and only sluggishly picking back up. That’s caused oil prices to swing from below zero — with traders paying to offload oil — in April 2020 to $78 a barrel today.

The economic and political toll of high gas prices has put Biden in the awkward position of urging oil rich nations to increase production while also trying to advance a green energy agenda at home and abroad.

“The reality is we have to take some time to get off oil and gas,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Thursday. “But in the meantime, we have to meet the immediate need for affordable energy and protect families from pain at the pump.”

Americans can expect their winter heating costs to increase anywhere from 6% to 94%, depending on the type of energy they use. Without an easy way to quickly boost supply and bring down costs, Democrats’ answer to high prices is to get the word out about the assistance available.

Minnesota’s Department of Commerce has more than twice as much money this year to give out in assistance — up from $117 million last winter to $273 million this winter, boosted by an infusion from the American Rescue Plan.

The state also received $672 million in federal rental assistance that can be used to pay for utility costs, and the expanded child tax credit is giving families an additional $250-$300 per child a month.

Only about a fifth of eligible Minnesota households receive energy assistance, but the Commerce Department aims to increase the number of households by 20% through expanding eligibility and boosting payouts.

An additional 100,000 more Minnesota households are eligible to receive assistance with the higher income thresholds: $35,000 a year for a single person and nearly $68,000 for a family of four.

This year, households can receive up to $3,200 to pay for electricity, natural gas, oil, propane or wood, up from about $2,000 before the pandemic. Homeowners can also apply for help repairing or replacing broken heating systems and home weatherization to lower energy bills.

Just a month into the heating season, the state has already awarded more than $32.5 million in energy assistance to nearly 30,000 households.

“The need is overwhelming,” Walz said.

Walz also touted expanding shutoff protections for a longer season and extending them to water service. Minnesotans who sign up for a payment plan with their gas or electric company cannot have their service shutoff from October through April.

“The chance of someone getting a shutoff on a February day is reduced to nearly zero,” Walz said.

Senate Energy Committee Chair Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, called the funds a band-aid approach and criticized Biden’s energy policy.

“We should be advancing policies that recognize the needs of all consumers as well as pursuing cleaner energy sources,” Senjem said in a statement.

Minnesotans can learn about applying for energy assistance here

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.