INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — After weeks of propane shortages and
high prices during the bitterly cold winter, some relief is coming to rural
residents who have dealt with chilly homes and frustrations keeping their
heating tanks filled.
Residential propane prices fell for a second straight week,
down from about $4 a gallon in late January to $3.76 a gallon on Feb. 10, the
U.S. Energy Information Administration said in its weekly report.
Supplies of the fuel that 5.5 million U.S. households,
mostly in the Midwest and South, use for heating have improved slightly due to
efforts by the propane industry, the federal government and states. But the
nation’s propane supply remains low, and more blasts of winter cold would
quickly send prices back up, said Roy Willis, president and CEO of the Propane
Education & Research Council.
“It’s really a weather-driven issue — another prolonged cold
snap could strain supplies and prices for the next couple of months. Winter
isn’t done with us,” he said. “When stockpiles get this low, and you get below
freezing temperatures for a week to 10 days, consumption levels go up and up and
up, and prices go right along with it.”
National propane supplies were depleted by a late harvest
that increased demand from farmers who needed to dry an unusually large amount
of grain before storage. The colder-than-normal winter across much of the nation
drained supplies further.
Willis said propane supplies have been replenished somewhat,
helping lower prices slightly in the last couple of weeks, due to a
collaboration between the government and industry to move supplies from large
propane storage areas, primarily in the South, into the Northeast and Midwest.
Propane shipments from North Africa and Europe also have helped, he said.
The improving supplies and warmer weather prompted Paducah,
Ky.-based United Propane Gas to announce that it was resuming shipping the fuel
to its prepaid customers in 10 states in the Midwest and the South days earlier
than it had anticipated. The company had temporarily halted propane shipments to
commercial customers in late January as propane supplies shrank.
“Propane supplies have loosened up, and the warm weather
indicates that the end of this national crisis may be in sight,” UPG President
Eric Small said in a statement.
But for now the company is limiting its propane deliveries
to 250 gallons per each of its prepaid customers, who can receive additional
deliveries every 15 days.
Wholesale propane prices also have fallen slightly, dropping
to about $2.61 a gallon as of Feb. 10, according to the Energy Information
Administration’s latest report.
Mollie O’Dell, a spokeswoman for the National Propane Gas
Association, said the drop in wholesale propane prices is being driven by many
factors, but the weather obviously continues to be a big influence on prices.
Prices could drop further thanks to an additional 500,000
barrels of propane that are being shipped to the Midwest and the Northeast under
an order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“A lot of it is weather dependent, but the additional half a
million barrels will certainly help take some of the pressure off supplies” and
help moderate wholesale and retail prices, O’Dell said.
Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said that while
additional propane shipments are getting into the pipeline system and to
terminals, there remain “a lot of distribution kinks to be worked out in terms
He said Minnesota state government has gotten more than
3,000 calls to a hotline set up for consumers with problems or concerns about
propane supply and prices.
“While prices are coming down, they are still high,” he
‘Crisis’ Not Over
Scot Imus, executive director of the Indiana Propane Gas
Association, said moderating temperatures and indications that the propane
supply is stabilizing are good signs, but propane users still need to be
vigilant and conserve. He said the low propane supplies remain a “crisis” for
those who rely on the heating fuel.
“It’s getting better, but we’re not out of the woods yet by
far,” he said.
Central Indiana residents Kim Casada and her husband,
Charlie, still are feeling the propane pinch. They shut off their furnace on
Jan. 24 and switched to using four electric space heaters to warm their
three-bedroom rural home south of Muncie.
The couple finally got a 150-gallon propane shipment on Feb.
4, but because their supplier said he wasn’t sure when they might get more
propane, they decided to keep their furnace off rely on their space heaters
until early March.
Casada said she and her husband have covered their windows
inside with plastic to keep the heat in and cold out and closed off their
bedrooms to increase the temperature in their living room, where they’ve been
sleeping most nights. They’ve been wearing sweaters and layered clothing to deal
with indoor temperatures in the lower 60s.
“We don’t know what else to do,” Casada said. “These chilly
nights, it’s just really hard, and we’re both exhausted — there are so many
people in the same boat as us.”
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