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Published February 03, 2014, 10:40 AM

Minn. governor declares crisis on propane shortage

Minnesotans living in a quarter-million rural homes, as well as businesses and farmers depend on propane for heat, but soaring prices and shortages that experts predict will get worse are sending chills down their backs.

By: Don Davis,

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Minnesotans living in a quarter-million rural homes, as well as businesses and farmers depend on propane for heat, but soaring prices and shortages that experts predict will get worse are sending chills down their backs.

Gov. Mark Dayton declared the situation a crisis Jan. 28 after meeting with dozens of key people in the Minnesota propane industry, from farm leaders to propane wholesalers to those who sell it to customers.

“This is not going to go away soon,” the Democrat said.

Near the top of his propane to-do list is calling Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry to allow more propane to be transported to Minnesota. Dayton also is pressing President Barack Obama on the same issue, and he plans to talk with railroad leaders about getting more propane-filled tank cars headed to the state.

Dayton’s administration is increasing the aid available to Minnesotans who cannot afford the fuel.

The problem is a lack of propane that has pushed prices to record levels, in some cases more than doubling in recent months. Those who started a three-day propane convention in Bloomington Jan. 28 said they have not heard of anyone who has run out of propane and cannot get more, but they were gloomy about their immediate prospects.

The long-term outlook is not bright, either. A Canadian pipeline that delivers more than 40 percent of Minnesota’s propane is scheduled to close permanently in April. Since large quantities of propane only are needed in the fall when farmers dry grain and in winter when homes need to be heated, those at the convention suggested that other solutions are needed.

“We are in a real emergency,” Dayton said.

He issued an emergency decree, allowing state agencies to help Minnesotans affected by the crisis.

If it gets to the point that people run out of propane, the state could help local governments shelter them. But, so far, state officials say there is little they can do other than what Dayton outlined.

A late, wet harvest

The issue began in the fall when Upper Midwest crops were harvested late and were wet. That meant farmers used more propane for drying grain.

As the driers were working, cold settled over the region and forced Midwesterners to turn up thermostats and use more propane earlier than normal. Temperatures seldom have gone above normal since then.

“Even a few days with 5-degree temperatures would help,” says Chad Pendill of LPG and NH3 Supply, an equipment supplier in Buffalo.

“With below-zero temperatures hitting Minnesota hard this week, we need to alleviate this shortage and ensure propane prices don’t continue to skyrocket in Minnesota and other states hit by the shortage,” Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said as he pledged to continue to turn up the heat on the administration.

Make it a priority

Vice President Drew Combs of CHS, a propane supplier based in the Twin Cities, says a long-term solution must include increasing storage on farms and elsewhere so propane can be shipped to the Upper Midwest year round, not only in spurts when it is most needed.

Combs suggests giving tax breaks to farmers and others who build propane storage facilities.

Executive Director Chris Radatz of the Minnesota Farm Bureau says the government needs to take action: “Make movement of propane a higher priority.”

Before the crisis hit, the propane industry was making strides in convincing Americans to use the fuel in cars and other vehicles. But Carl Wenner, owner of a Cold Springs hardware store that sells propane, says high prices and short supply changed the future. “This will wipe that out.”

The propane industry sees one bright side after government officials and the news media got wind of the situation.

“It is on everyone’s radar now,” Pendill says.

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