Propane shortage prompts an appeal to the president

MARSHALL – Arctic temperatures and transportation difficulties have resulted in alarmingly low supplies of propane heating fuel for homes and farms in the Upper Midwest.

“It’s mainly a price thing,” said Tim Borstad, energy manager for Farmers Co-op in Canby. “The price of propane has gone from $1.50 to $4.50 per gallon. That’s significant.”

Rachel Bagley, energy programs manager for Western Community Action’s Marshall office, said WCA doesn’t have the kind of budget for tripled prices.

“It’s pretty bad,” Bagley said. “We used to be able to provide a minimum fill for our low-income clients for $500, and now it’s $1,500.”

Bagley said they were in the process of trying to secure additional funding from the federal government. The current energy grant program administered through the state provides $500 in grant aid and an additional $500 in emergency funds once the grant is used.

According to Borstad, propane is used to heat houses, barns, livestock shelter and corn driers. In the fiscal year August 2012 to July 2013, propane use was about 54 percent home heating and 46 percent agricultural in the Canby-Minneota-Marshall area. The percentage varies year-to-year largely depending on corn drier use. This year the cold is driving propane consumption upward, and co-ops generally have less than a month’s supply on hand.

The irony is there isn’t a shortage of propane, it’s getting it to where it’s needed.

“There’s lots of propane in Texas,” said Brad Rosa, general manager of Cottonwood Co-op. “It’s getting it from the Gulf Coast.”

According to Rosa, most comes through pipelines, but there have been problems allocating pipeline use. Some comes by rail, but much of the rolling stock is now being used for crude oil shipments from the Bakken field in North Dakota.

Locally, propane is delivered by truck, but the demand has caused some of the terminals to allocate shipments.

“The supply is tight, so we’re allocated x-number of loads from our suppliers,” Rosa said. “We’ve got enough to take care of our day-to-day basics but if the cold lasts a long time, we may run out.”

The problem is not just the cold in the Upper Midwest. This winter has seen unusually cold temperatures extend south into Oklahoma and Texas.

On the local level, WCA tries to deal with it through education.

“We’re trying to make sure when people call us needing fuel to educate them,” Bagley said. “Don’t let your tank run out. There are fees for same-day delivery and a fee for tank tests. Check your tanks regularly and try to make regular payments to your provider to build your account.”

On the state level, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken; U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson, Betty McCollum, Tim Walz and Rick Nolan and Gov. Mark Dayton have written a letter to President Barack Obama urging immediate action. Dayton also issued a state of emergency because of the propane shortage.

According to the letter, published on the governor’s office website, the governor and congressional delegation urged the president:

To maintain and expand the U.S. Department of Transportation exemption to the hours-of-service regulations on truckers transporting propane from the Gulf.

Address any regulatory barriers at the U.S. Department of Energy to rail and pipeline transportation of propane.

Consider exercising presidential authority to ensure a sufficient supply of propane for domestic consumption.

If necessary to ensure funds for state emergency management offices or other first responders to provide emergency delivery of propane to communities in danger of running out.

To make emergency funding available through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and emergency energy efficiency grants to livestock producers through the Rural Energy for America (REAP) program.