Good morning. The year 2000 is drawing to a close at a moment of great progress, prosperity, and peace for America. But while we have many reasons to be thankful, good weather is not one of them.
Terrible ice storms in the Southern Plains States have left more than a dozen people dead and thousands without heat and electricity. Two days ago I declared that an emergency exists in Arkansas and Oklahoma so that Federal aid can be made immediately available to help families in those States. Now a major snowstorm is rolling into the Northeast, and weather experts tell us that this November and December are shaping up to be among the coldest on record. All this, along with the increased demand for energy that has accompanied unparalleled economic growth, is putting enormous pressure on the energy supplies Americans need to heat their homes and businesses.
Fortunately, we're far better prepared for this winter energy challenge because of actions we took this fall, and the new steps I am taking will ensure that we remain prepared. In late September, I directed the Department of Energy to exchange 30 million barrels of crude oil from the Federal Government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. This was a step to prevent a supply crisis that would have had a particularly harsh effect on heating oil inventories in the Northeast.
At the time, many said that using the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help Americans heat their homes was a terrible idea, that it would never work. Well, now we have the results. I'm pleased to report that inventories of crude oil are up, and prices have dropped substantially, from $37 to $26 a barrel. Home heating oil prices also have fallen in recent weeks, and supply shortfalls have been cut by more than half.
But even though heating oil prices have begun to ease, the cost of heating a home still is too high, especially for families on low and fixed incomes. That's why I'm releasing $300 million in funds from our Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Along with similar funds I released earlier this fall, we've now devoted more than $850 million to assist families who can least afford to bear the burden of high energy prices this winter.
The simple lesson we've learned again and again is that the best way to meet challenges is to stay ahead of them. So I am taking some new steps to prepare for more cold weather this winter. First, I'm directing the Departments of Energy and Transportation to make extra efforts to keep navigation lanes in U.S. harbors free of ice for ships bringing in heating oil. I'm also asking them to work with States to relieve bottlenecks on our Nation's roads, rivers, and pipelines.
Second, in the Northwest, which is experiencing tight electricity supplies, I am asking all Federal facilities to join those in California that are already reducing their electricity consumption during peak hours. This will help to keep lights and heat on in homes and businesses across the West.
Third, Energy Secretary Richardson has extended an emergency order to powerplants providing electricity to California to keep the power flowing in that hard-hit State.
Fourth, I am asking the Small Business Administration to reach out to small businesses with high energy costs to make them aware of special SBA loans that will allow them to stretch out their energy payments. That could be a big help for businesses trying to get through this cold winter.
None of us can control the weather. But all of us are responsible for how we respond to and prepare for it. With the actions I am taking, the Federal Government is fulfilling its responsibility. Across the Nation, Americans are doing their part: snowplow drivers are working late into the night; emergency shelter workers are offering a warm place to sleep for families whose homes are without power; younger neighbors are bringing hot food to their older neighbors and shoveling their walkways.
The worst weather always seems to bring out the best in the American people. If we continue to work together and bring out the best in each other, we'll get through this cold weather just fine and usher in a new year of unlimited promise for our great Nation.
Thanks for listening.