updated 10/16/2008 6:41:08 PM ET 2008-10-16T22:41:08

The Bush administration on Thursday released $5.1 billion in fuel assistance to states, nearly doubling federal money to help poor people cope with high home heating bills expected this winter.

Despite oil price drops in recent months, lawmakers from cold weather states said high energy prices and the slumping economy are leaving many families struggling to pay to keep warm.

"The double whammy of rising costs and economic uncertainty is hitting local consumers hard," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "With this increase in funding, hopefully no one in Massachusetts should have to make a heat-or-eat decision this winter."

About 2 million more families are expected to get fuel aid this winter, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents state-run low-income energy assistance programs. About 5.8 million families got help last winter.

The extra money could enable states to increase benefit levels as well as help more people.

The Northeast, with its cold winters and reliance on oil heat, is particularly vulnerable to high energy costs.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said there has been a sharp increase in the number of families applying for aid in his state.

"More and more families in Connecticut and across the country are struggling to keep up with rising home heating costs," Dodd said. "These additional funds will go a long way toward helping the tens of thousands of senior citizens and low income families in our state fighting to stay warm this winter."

Home heating oil in Connecticut currently averages about $3.30 a gallon, an increase of nearly $1 per gallon since the beginning of 2007, said Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. Connecticut families are expected to pay upwards of $3,000 for heating oil this winter, he said.

"Everywhere I go in this district, I hear from people who are concerned about how they are going to heat their homes and their businesses this winter," Murphy.

The increased fuel aid was included in a stopgap budget bill that Congress passed and President Bush signed last month.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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