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Natural gas industry wants to ‘break the poverty cycle’

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(The Center Square) — The natural gas industry plans to push for more support of a federal program to cover energy costs for low-income families in 2024 while talking up safety and reliability.

“We need to break the poverty cycle by working together,” Jerry Norcia, chairman of the board of the American Gas Association, said in a press call on Monday. “Government, nonprofits and corporations can remove the barriers that prevent access to a prosperous future.”

The Low-Income Energy Assistance Program has received more than $6 billion in funding in the latest fiscal year after dipping slightly from $8 billion in 2021 during the pandemic. The money covers heating and cooling assistance for qualifying families.

“LIHEAP serves 5.7 million American households and is a critical federal resource for many low-income customers in times of need,” Norcia said. “We as an industry need to advocate for more resources to help those in need in a time of need including LIHEAP funding.”

Karen Harbert, president and CEO of AGA, noted the group is a huge supporter of energy efficiency programs and spends $1.5 billion every year to help customers.

Norcia said that growing LIHEAP will be a focus of his time as AGA chairman.

The program has received criticism from fiscal watchdogs. The Heritage Foundation argued for the abolition of the federal program to save $120 billion over the next decade. Instead, it advocated for states to create their own programs.

“States and localities are better positioned to address the needs of their target populations that are not already addressed by other federal means-tested programs,” the foundation noted. “In fact, state policy changes in recent decades have rendered LIHEAP unnecessary. Additionally, endemic fraud and abuse undermine the program’s integrity. Policymakers should end LIHEAP, devolve responsibility for its goals back to the states, and restore real federalism to the welfare system.”

A 2011 Pennsylvania audit noted the state’s LIHEAP fraud problem which led to 13 convictions over more than $500,000 in stolen funds, including seven state employees.

Norcia and Harbert also touched on a perennial issue for Pennsylvania natural gas: permitting hurdles.

“One thing that unites the entire energy industry is the need for permitting reform,” Harbert said.

The big focus, she said, was on getting reasonable timelines for energy projects.

“The fact that it took an act of Congress to approve the Mountain Valley Pipeline…isn’t really the way we want to run a 21st-century economy,” Harbert said. “At the end of the day, we are going to need some more reasonable permitting reform, some reasonable timelines, and not the ability to sue over and over and over again on every single part of the permit.”

Otherwise, she said, energy projects will take longer to build and become more expensive.

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