By John Kerry

Some 99 percent of all businesses in this country are small businesses. They provide more than half of all private-sector jobs and account for 75 percent of net new job growth. Just as we depend on small businesses to fuel our economy, they depend on affordable energy to fuel their businesses and protect their bottom line.

And when energy prices soar, some companies suffer more than others - home heating oil distributors who see the price of their inventory skyrocket, mom-and-pop stores, restaurants, day care centers, nursing homes and greenhouses.

Heating-oil price spikes are particularly devastating to small businesses because those companies rarely have the credit lines or cash flow to compensate for increased operating costs. It is precisely these significant, unforeseen and recurring increases in the price of energy over the past two years, compounded by cold snaps, that threaten the economic viability of many small businesses.

The cost of heating oil nationally climbed 72 percent from February 1999 to February 2000, the cost of natural gas climbed 27 percent from September 1999 to September 2000 and the cost of propane climbed 54 percent from January 2000 to January 2001. The financial struggles of business owners in the Northeast, where last year the cost of home heating oil jumped as much as 100 percent, have been even more pronounced. In Massachusetts, during one cold snap the prices jumped so high without any warning - 22 percent in the cost of natural gas, and the average price per gallon of heating oil up 60 percent, from $ 1.12 to $ 1.79 - that we declared a state of emergency.

The Massachusetts Oilheat Council in Wellesley Hills, whose members deliver more than 60 percent of the heating oil across our state, reported its retailers were so devastated by price shocks that they faced not only "stretched credit lines" but "negative cash flows."

As energy prices continue to soar and we search for long-term solutions, businesses need access to capital to mitigate or avoid losses. To help alleviate economic hardship and stave off disaster amid high fuel bills, I have proposed legislation to provide emergency relief for small businesses.

Affordable, low-interest Small Business Administration Disaster Loans can be the lifeline small businesses need to stay afloat. Targeted in scope, limited in purpose, flexible in nature and far from being government excess, they are a necessity for many small businesses in times of spiraling fuel costs. Commercial lenders typically won't make loans to small businesses in dire need because they rarely have the increased cash flow to demonstrate the ability to repay the loan. It takes an added incentive - like a federal loan guarantee - for private banks to give these loan applications a second glance.

We need to make capital directly accessible to every needy small business this winter, and we need to do it rapidly. The answer is to expand SBA's Economic Injury Disaster Loans to include small businesses adversely affected by increases in the prices of heating oil, propane, kerosene and natural gas. Economic-injury disaster loans give financially strapped small businesses sufficient working capital until normal operations resume or until they can restructure or change the business to address market fluctuations. These are direct loans at subsidized interest rates of 4 percent or less, precisely the helping hand our companies need to ride out tough economic times.

Small business disaster loans are pro-business, pro-consumer public policy and Congress should pass them into law before an unpredictable winter and skyrocketing energy prices cause American small businesses - the engine of our economy - to run out of fuel.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is the senior Democrat on the Senate Small Business Committee and a former small business owner.