By Don Davis
Two Upper Midwest governors have issued emergency orders to help their residents deal with a propane shortage, with prices at the highest levels ever, while those in the region who depend on the gas for heat face continued bitterly cold temperatures.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton Monday night declared a propane emergency. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took similar action during the weekend.
Both governors have ordered their state agencies to do whatever they can to help residents cope. Neither state took immediate action, but the governors’ orders allow state agencies to respond if local officials seek help.
Dayton declared a state of emergency after meeting with key commissioners Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, Dayton plans to meet with propane suppliers to see how to improve the gas supply.
“This is a serious situation,” said Bruce Gordon of the Minnesota Public Safety Department. “If homes, farms and businesses run out of heating fuel, there will need to be a coordinated response from state and local officials. The executive order allows state agencies to provide support when and if necessary.”
Dayton and many in the state’s congressional delegation last weekend asked the federal government and Texas to waive propane shipping restrictions to allow more gas to move into Minnesota. He also told state Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman to make sure Minnesota propane customers are not being charged exorbitant prices.
The Dayton administration has increased the amount of heating financial aid available to Minnesotans.
Walker ordered Wisconsin agencies “to assist as appropriate,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
National Guard troops could conduct door-to-door checks on residents who may have run out of propane. Also, armories in the two states could open if enough people were not able to say in their homes if propane runs out.
Besides dealing with the propane crisis, Dayton issued an order allowing National Guard troops to help stranded motorists.
While Wednesday temperatures were predicted to get into the double digits, above zero for a change, later in the week lows are expected to head back negative for days.
The propane shortage and high prices were among the chief concerns during the second January cold snap.
Steve Olafson of Skelgas in Park Rapids, Minn., said he has been losing sleep at night wondering if the company can stay in business and provide heat to area customers.
”We have enough gas for today,” Olafson said Monday.
He advised customers to stay patient, conserve and plan ahead.
Propane costs have nearly doubled in the past year, and in some cases gone higher than that.
In Alexandria, Minn., Cenex LP Gas and Petroleum Products was selling propane for $4.89 per gallon.
“That’s the highest it’s ever been,” General Manager Lane Kalina said.
Kalina said Cenex is not filling customer tanks to the general 400-gallon capacity. Instead, they are limited to 150 gallons.
Drew Combs, vice president for the propane business unit at CHS Inc. of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., said inventory levels today are 40 percent lower than this time last year. Mike Rud, executive director of the North Dakota Propane Gas Association in Bismarck estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of farmers heat with propane, although some have dual heat capabilities also using electric heat.
Another gas problem eased Monday.
Xcel Energy, Great Plains Natural Gas and other companies in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan had asked customers to lower temperatures on their natural gas furnace thermostats during the weekend after a Canadian pipeline explosion south of Winnipeg cut gas supplies.
On Monday, the gas companies said customers could raise the temperature on their thermostats and resume using natural gas appliances.
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Monday talked with Xcel and TransCanada executives about the natural gas situation.
“North Dakota customers deserve to have the peace of mind that their energy supply will be there when they need it most,” Heitkamp said.
Wind chills as cold as earlier this month, combined with blizzard-force winds, forced 220 Minnesotans to stay in shelters in Nobles, Freeborn, Renville and Cottonwood counties overnight Sunday, the state Public Safety Department reported. Even well into Monday morning, 37 hockey players and parents remained in a Windom recreation center because their team bus would not start.
While Minnesota shelters closed Monday morning, officials said they were prepared to reopen them if needed. Dayton said National Guard armories can be used.
Throughout the region, thousands of students got Monday off because of the cold. And it appeared the same was true for Tuesday as superintendents called off school throughout Monday.
Some superintendents, however, were waiting to decide.
“We have not made a decision yet, but it is not looking good…” Brainerd, Minn., Superintendent Steve Razidlo said Monday afternoon. “We think we made the right decision to close school today.”
“We are concerned with the wind chill,” said Razidlo, as the wind chill anticipated Tuesday morning could be between 40 and 50 below zero.
Frigid temperatures also caused other headaches to certain Brainerd area residents. About 688 residents, who live southeast of Brainerd, along Highway 18, were without power early Monday morning.
Minnesota’s governor does not plan to call off classes statewide. Dayton said he made the decision to cancel classes earlier this month to help get the word out as schools were just coming off a holiday break.
Students liked his decision, Dayton said. “I received overwhelming support from everybody who can’t vote until the next generation.”
One girl wrote him a note after he called off schools: “Mark, I love you. You are the bomb.com.”
But schools on the Iron Range and in International Falls were not so happy. “A low of minus 15, that’s normal around here,” he said northeastern school officials told him.
Dayton said two students at Cretin-Derham Hall, a St. Paul Catholic high school, showed up at the governor’s residence Sunday night “to make a plea to close their school.” He said that he told them that he could not, but the school will be closed Tuesday, along with many others across Minnesota.
Propane shortages may remain an issue for some time.
The Minnesota Commerce Department suggested that users plan ahead and not wait until they are almost out of propane to order more. They also said propane users should save gas by turning down the heat when gone and at night, as well as sealing windows and closing fireplace dampers when there is no fire.
The state fire marshal’s office said that residents using portable space heaters when gas runs low should make sure flammable objects are kept away and that space heaters have automatic shutoffs.
“Space heaters need constant watching,” the marshal’s office reported. “Never leave a space heater on when you go to sleep.”
Reporters Jennifer Stockinger, Amy Chaffins, Sarah Smith, Marie Nitke and Mikkel Pates contributed to this story.