Midwest faces propane emergency as more cold weather moves in


A snowplow works to clear a downtown Eau Claire, Wis., street during a heavy snowstorm Jan. 14. (Steve Kinderman/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

Millions of residents in the Midwest and Northeast who rely on propane to heat their homes are facing a severe shortage and spiking prices as another wave of freezing weather heads east. Now, states across the region are deploying emergency resources as a result.

Blame for the propane shortage lies with the wetter-than-usual fall, which meant that farmers used more propane than usual to dry corn crops; an unusually cold winter; and a temporary shutdown of a major pipeline for maintenance this year.

As a result, propane prices are setting new records. The average price of a gallon of residential propane for the week ending Jan. 20 hit $2.96, according to the Energy Information Administration, up 60 cents from mid-October, the highest price ever recorded by the agency. Prices in the Midwest are even higher; on Friday, prices ended at $4.30 a gallon in the Midwest, down from a peak of about $5 a gallon.

Propane inventory in the Midwest stands at about two-thirds of its five-year average, and is 40 percent lower than this time last year. At the same time, cold temperatures have consumers using more propane than ever.

To deal with the shortage, governors in many states have lifted limits on the number of hours commercial drivers transporting propane can travel. Drivers shipping propane across 24 states can stay on the road beyond the number of hours usually allowed, under emergency orders issued this month.

Under ordinary circumstances, drivers must take a mandatory rest breaks after 11 hours behind the wheel. Many of the emergency measures allow drivers to stay on the road for as long as 14 hours before taking a break.

On Saturday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) declared a state of emergency in advance of forecasts showing frigid temperatures on the way. The state’s Department of Administration will make $1.5 million in low-income energy assistance funding available, while a nonprofit that provides heating assistance to low-income residents said it would increase the number of residents it covers.

“The health and safety of our citizens is our number one priority, and this declaration gives us the necessary resources to protect the residents of Wisconsin,” Walker said in a statement.

In a letter last week, Rep. Dan Benishek (R), who represents the Upper Penninsula of Michigan, urged President Obama to make more federal money available for low-income heating assistance.

Elsewhere, the cold has shuttered schools and eaten into already-stretched budgets. Stewart County, Tenn., closed its public schools for two days last week because of low propane levels. The county will receive 2,000 gallons of fuel soon, but at a cost of $3.45 per gallon, nearly three times the $1.29 per gallon it paid before, the director of schools told the Los Angeles Times.

Throughout the country, about 6 million homes rely on propane for heat, mainly in rural and exurban communities.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · January 27