A heating oil delivery truck advertises a price of $2.72 per gallon while making deliveries in Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in South Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — The federal government has released about $3.4 billion in energy assistance ahead of winter, but far more is needed to help struggling families during the pandemic, advocates said Friday.

The National Energy Assistance Directors Association is calling on Congress to provide an additional $10 billion.

An estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of families are already behind by six months on utility bills, and more will fall deeper into debt without help, said Mark Wolfe, the NEADA’s executive director in Washington, D.C.

“Congress must help Americans who cannot afford to heat their homes. It would be tragic to allow these families to be buried by months of unpaid electric and gas bills,” Wolfe said.

The $3.36 billion released early Friday represents 90 percent of the funding for the coming year under the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP. All told, the program helps 6 million households.

Another $10 billion for the coming year would help another 8 million families, helping them reduce their outstanding utility bills as well providing assistance in the months ahead, he said.

The federal government projected that home heating costs will grow this winter because of expected colder-than-normal temperatures and people continuing to shelter at home.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that spending for propane will grow 14 percent, natural gas 6 percent and electricity 7 percent.

Oil users are expected to get a break to the tune of a 10 percent drop in projected costs, according to the EIA. That’s good news in the Northeast, where nearly 20 percent of homes rely on oil furnaces as a primary heating source, the EIA said.

The energy assistance program is popular in Congress, and lawmakers have thwarted past attempts by the Trump administration to slash the program. The funding helps people heat their homes in the winter in northern-tier states, and helps people keep cool in the summer in sunbelt states.

“These programs remain important lifelines that help prevent vulnerable individuals from having to choose between heating their home, paying their bills, or going without food or medicine,” Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine said Friday in a statement.

Story by David Sharp.