Price gouging latest propane concern

Eide, Rothman

By Don Davis

Minnesota’s attorney general warns of propane price gouging as the Upper Midwest faces a shortage and record-high costs.

Attorney General Lori Swanson told the state Executive Council, which Friday proclaimed a propane emergency situation for 30 days, that people leasing propane tanks may be especially at risk.

Companies that lease tanks to Minnesotans demand that they be the sole source of fuel purchases, Swanson said. That means those companies may charge as much as they want.

Swanson and Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said their offices have received several calls about the situation.

A 1957 state law gives propane sellers the right to demand that only they supply the fuel for tanks they own.

Gov. Mark Dayton said that issue would appear to be ripe for the 2014 Legislature to tackle.

Swanson said that Minnesotans with the money may buy their own fuel tanks and buy propane from anyone they want.

Rothman said that propane prices that were about $1.50 a gallon before the crisis have in some places gone above $6.

“The situation is not going to ease up,” Rothman said, with continued cold temperatures expected to keep demand for heating fuel high.

The Executive Council, composed of the five statewide elected officials, unanimously voted to extend a state of emergency declaration Dayton issued Tuesday for the next 30 days. A governor can only declare an emergency for five days. Dayton said he could call the council back into session in a month if the emergency continues.

The declaration gives Dayton the ability to take actions, such as using National Guard troops or to open armories as shelters for people who have not heat.

After the council meeting, Dayton met with aides about the situation and decided he will have daily telephone conference calls with propane industry leaders and people in his administration. It also was decided to open a propane hotline on weekends; originally it was to be open only Monday through Friday.

The hotline received 550 calls since it opened Thursday. Officials said calls included those concerned about high prices and some who needed financial assistance.

The hotline is for Minnesotans with questions or concerns about the propane situation. It could involve people who have run out of propane and cannot get more and need a warm place to stay. The state is working with local authorities on the situation.

The commissioner said 250,000 Minnesota homes, mostly in rural areas, are heated with propane. His staff could not say how many businesses, farms, schools, hospitals and other facilities use propane.

Director Kris Eide of Minnesota’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management said that the state Emergency Operations Center’s propane emergency could overlap with “the typical flood preparations” that will begin soon in anticipation of spring floods.

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Minnesotans may call a propane hotline with questions and problems 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week at (651) 297-1304 or (800) 657-3504.

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