Punishing Winter Temperatures Drain Propane Supplies

The latest winter storm and freezing temperatures are straining already low supplies of propane in the Midwest and Northeast. Millions of Americans use the liquefied gas to heat their homes.

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And this latest winter storm and those freezing temperatures are putting a strain on already low supplies of propane in the Northeast and Midwest. Millions of Americans use the liquefied gas to heat their homes. And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, they're paying more and getting less this winter season, which started early, thanks to the extreme cold of the polar vortex.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: As temperatures plummeted this winter, so did supply of propane. But the problem was more than just that winter storm. It was more of a perfect storm that left inventories depleted.

ROY WILLIS: Well, they had a double whammy.

SMITH: Roy Willis, head of the Propane Education and Research Council, says suppliers started out this season already in a pinch, after farmers - who use propane to dry crops - had an especially wet harvest and used five times their usual amount.

WILLIS: The increase in consumption represented about 15, 20 percent in total when you look at crop drying and the current winter heating demand over what we've experienced over the last decades.

SMITH: And complicating the picture even more, the same brutal weather that's got demand for propane extremely high is also making delivering propane extremely tough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

SMITH: In South Central Indiana, where wind chills were below zero yesterday, Dennis Clark was navigating messy rural roads to deliver the relatively little bit of propane he had.

DENNIS CLARK: Around 8,000 gallons right now. Usually I keep, you know, around 25,000.

SMITH: Clark has owned his propane business more than 30 years, and can't remember things ever being so tight.

CLARK: This propane shortage is just like it was in the gas and fuel shortages back in the '70s, you know.

SMITH: Prices have almost doubled from $1.79 a gallon last year to 2.99 today. And Clark says some of his customers are looking at other ways to heat their homes.

CLARK: Some of them get mad. I've even had a couple that quit. That's it.

SMITH: Many states have declared states of emergency, which allows propane delivery truck drivers to work longer hours.

They're also calls for emergency federal assistance for the millions of low income residents - especially those in rural areas beyond the reach of utilities, who depend on propane.

Jeff Petrash, with the National Propane Gas Association, says meantime, some foreign suppliers are jumping into the mix.

JEFF PETRASH: For the first time in four or five years, tanker ships have been coming in to New England bringing in foreign propane to try to meet the demand there.

SMITH: But Petrash says that's not likely to bring consumers any price relief, since the imported propane is more expensive. And he says, demand will likely continue to outpace supply.

PETRASH: I think the situation will be challenging for the industry for the balance of this winter to meet consumer needs.

SMITH: How challenging, he says, depends on the weather. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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