Just as cold weather struck the Northeast, the White House and Congress put people in danger by cutting low-income heating assistance.

But Maine officials should not make the problem worse by using scarce energy conservation funds to make up for the shortfall.

Officials from two independent state agencies, the Maine State Housing Authority and Efficiency Maine, are working with the governor’s energy office to come up with a plan to address the needs of low-income Mainers. Maine enters this year’s heating season with $38.5 million in federal aid, down from $54 million a year ago.

So far, most people are saying the right things. Energy Office Director Ken Fletcher came out of a meeting Tuesday and said that conservation is an important part of the strategy.

That is reassuring, but it’s at odds with what Fletcher’s’ boss said last week. Gov. Paul LePage told reporters that he expected the agencies to come up with the money.

“Winter is now, we have to solve the problem now,” he said. “There are readily available funds in their organizations that can help us with this problem.”

But a shortsighted approach could make things worse instead of better.

Maine has some of the oldest houses in the nation and many low-income people live in drafty dwellings that the owners can’t afford to fix. Money wasted heating those homes cannot be used to heat other homes. Every gallon of oil conserved can be put to good use elsewhere.

There are no easy answers, but gutting an effective conservation program to burn oil wastefully is not the right one. If anything, Maine should be speeding up its weatherization programs.

Efficiency Maine is proposing moving money from a program that would promote the sale of energy-efficient refrigerators to weatherize homes that heat with electricity.

The agency is also looking at shifting money earmarked for buying alternative heating systems like pellet stoves to immediate weatherization projects.

The problem is immediate, but it won’t go away this year. Maine officials should keep up the effort to address the long-term problem while weathering this made-in-Washington crisis.

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