By Don Davis
Millions of Midwesterners face the threat of not being able to buy enough propane to heat their homes and businesses at a time when the country has more of the fuel than ever.
The propane just is not where it needs to be, the Propane Education and Research Council reported Thursday.
Also Thursday, Upper Midwest propane users got a couple sparks of good news.
First, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told Midwest governors in a conference call that he would suspend trucking rules that restricted transportation of propane from Texas to areas of the north experiencing propane shortages and high prices.
Second, the Obama administration announced it would release more heating assistance money for people who cannot afford propane and other fuels.
The propane council announced Thursday that it will investigate specifically why the shortage occurred and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
“At a time when U.S. propane production is at an all-time high, PERC wants to know what can be done to ensure that propane can be quickly and affordably put to use here at home, even during times of extreme weather,” the council said in a statement.
Politicians and the propane council reported that two main problems appear to have caused the propane shortage, and accompanying record-high prices, beyond high demand for the heating fuel due to cold weather: transportation problems and rising propane exports.
Transportation woes have slowed movement of the fuel to the Upper Midwest, the area with the most serious issues and that most relies on propane. A Canadian propane pipeline explosion last weekend cut some supplies, but western North Dakota and Canadian oil booms also take pipelines and rail cars out of the propane supply chain.
On Thursday, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and other governors won Perry’s commitment to suspend some rules that limit Texas propane being trucked to the Midwest. Dayton’s office reported the rules would be suspended for “several weeks” and the issue will be revisited.
Dayton also is encouraging railroads to make more cars available to transport propane.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker used President Barack Obama’s Thursday visit to his state to discuss the propane crisis.
The propane council reports that transportation is important because most storage for the fuel is located outside the Upper Midwest, where the fuel is needed during unusually cold weather that is expected to last at least through mid-February.
Also, the council reports, propane is being exported at a time it is needed at home. Politicians are leaning on Obama to redirect some of the fuel to the Upper Midwest. Last year, more than 20 percent of American propane was exported, compared to 5 percent in 2008.
In the meantime, government officials say those in the Upper Midwest should conserve fuel and take measures such as ordering propane early, not waiting for tanks to get near empty.
In Minnesota, state officials have opened a hotline for those with propane problems or questions.
The Obama administration on Thursday gave states more funds to help low-income residents who cannot afford paying for heating fuel.
Minnesota will receive $15.8 million more and Wisconsin $14.2 million in additional funds.
The extra federal aid came a day after Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin asked the administration for the money to help those affected by high propane prices.
“As more cold weather bears down on Minnesota, it’s absolutely critical that families are able to heat their homes and stay warm,” Klobuchar said.
Baldwin added: “Rural homeowners across Wisconsin are experiencing crisis conditions due to the propane supply shortage and resulting price hikes in the Midwest.”
Franken said that with colder temperatures predicted, again, he will keep monitoring the situation.
About 250,000 Minnesota homes use propane fuel for heat, with businesses and farmers also using it. Most of the homes that use propane are in rural areas.
Wisconsin has about the same number of homes on propane.
Governors in those two states, as well as North Dakota and South Dakota, have taken actions to deal with the fuel shortage and cost. The most common move is to allow drivers to haul propane beyond hours they normally can work.
Wisconsin and Minnesota have the biggest problems, the biggest propane price tag and have done the most to resolve the crisis.
Reports from some areas of northern Wisconsin on Thursday indicated prices were around $5.75 a gallon, more than $4 higher than normal. Similar price spikes were reported in parts of Minnesota.
Propane is used by many rural residents in the Upper Midwest because natural gas pipelines generally only serve those in cities. However, propane also is used in places other than homes and businesses, including heating construction projects.
People who cannot afford propane may seek help through the federally funded Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program.
Minnesota legislators advise their constituents to take advantage of state aid.
“In the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one should ever have to worry about whether or not they can afford to keep themselves and their families warm during these cold winter months,” Reps. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township, Carly Melin of Hibbing and Jason Metsa of Virginia said in a statement. “Minnesotans look out for one another, which is why we offer programs to provide financial assistance for those who have fallen on hard times.”
Other forms of assistance may be available through county social service programs, community-based organizations and nonprofit agencies.
Upper Midwest state governments have given their residents several ways to get more information on the propane situation:
— Minnesotans may call a propane hotline with questions and problems from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at (651) 297-1304 or (800) 657-3504.
— A website directs Minnesotans to a variety of resources at mn.gov/commerce/energy/topics/resources/Stay-Warm-Minnesota.
— Low-income Minnesotans may get more information about heating financial assistance at (800) 657-3710 or mn.gov/commerce/energy/consumers/Heating-Assistance.
— North Dakotans who need help paying heating costs can get information at (800) 755-2716 or www.nd.gov/dhs/services/financialhelp/energyassist.html.
— South Dakotans can get information about heating financial aid at dss.sd.gov/energyassistance.
— Wisconsinites may call (866) 432-8947 or visit www.homeenergyplus.wi.gov to find out where to buy propane or apply for financial heating aid.
— Another Wisconsin site also offers heating assistance at www.kwwf.org.
— General information on the Wisconsin situation is available at ready.wi.gov/propane.
— Wisconsin residents may call the nonemergency number of their local sheriff’s offices to find a warming shelter.