2014-02-06 / Front Page

Beast of burden

ProPane shortage easing, but effects felt


Above, a propane tank sits among drifts of snow at an area residence. In recent weeks, the price of propane has spiked due to the repairs on an essential pipeline and various other factors, such as a colder than average winter. 
Pioneer Tribune photo Above, a propane tank sits among drifts of snow at an area residence. In recent weeks, the price of propane has spiked due to the repairs on an essential pipeline and various other factors, such as a colder than average winter. Pioneer Tribune photo MANISTIQUE – Despite the completion of repairs to an essential pipeline, areas in the Upper Peninsula, including Manistique, continue to feel the effects of a recent propane shortage. The pipeline repairs were just one of many factors leading to an “energy emergency” declaration for the state.

According to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, the propane shortage was caused by a combination of an increased demand due to higher than average usage for crop drying in the Midwest and Great Plains area; winter weather setting in sooner and more severely than anticipated; a rail closure in Canada; and difficult driving conditions.

In addition, the shortage worsened for the U.P. when a facility in Rapid River shut down in late January due to pipeline work in Wisconsin. Last week, supplies in the U.P. improved slightly as the facility went back online.

Due to the numerous factors affecting the propane supply, LARA reported propane inventories in the region are 46 percent below what they were at this time last year. On Dec. 20, Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of energy emergency for propane. A second executive order declaring a state of energy emergency for both propane and heating oil was issued on Jan. 10, and extended on Jan. 31. The order now remains in effect until Feb. 11.

The executive orders exempt motor carriers and drivers transporting propane and heating oil within Michigan from “hours-ofservice” regulations and requirements.

Locally, shortage relief is in sight, but prices increased in light of the lacking supplies remain higher than normal.

According to Guy Bowman, of Bowman Gas Company, Inc., his company currently has plenty of propane.

“The pressure has let up some,” he said. “The Rapid River facility is back online and producing steadily.”

Bowman noted that the facility is supplied by only one pipeline, so when it was down for a week, local suppliers were forced to look elsewhere for fill-ups. His company traveled as far as Alto, Mich. and Superior, Wis. to get enough propane to supply their customers.

As a result of the temporary shut down to the area’s number one supplier, Bowman said propane prices have gone up “astronomically” – on average, $2.40 more per gallon than last year.

“The prices are starting to soften a bit, and we’re starting to see some relief,” he said.

The average price for the area – $4.49 per gallon – is mostly because of the lack of supply in the right places. Bowman said he expects prices will continue to drop as the rest of the country warms up.

With the low temperatures and shortage in propane, the Department of Community Health cautioned residents who use alternative sources for heat, including generators and other gasoline or charcoal burning devices, to never use them inside homes, basements, garages or near a window. These appliances give off deadly carbon monoxide fumes, which are colorless, odorless, and can build up quickly in a home.

Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include headache, dizziness, confusion, fatigue, and nausea. As more of this gas is inhaled, it can cause unconsciousness, brain damage and even death. If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, get fresh air immediately and call 911. For more information about carbon monoxide poisoning and poisoning prevention, visit www.michigan.gov/carbonmonoxide.

For those struggling with the higher than normal propane prices, the Department of Human Services oversees the Michigan Energy Assistance Program, and encourages customers to dial 211 to obtain information about the closest MEAP grantees, who can provide qualifying people with direct bill assistance. Customers can also apply for State Emergency Relief at local department offices or online at any time by clicking the “Apply for Benefits” link at www.mibridges. michigan.gov.

The MPSC also provides information on available energy assistance, and offers information on a home heating credit that is available to low income customers.

If anyone is concerned about possible price gouging, Attorney General Bill Schuette encouraged customers to contact the Consumer Protection Division at 1-877-765- 8388 or file an online complaint at www.michigan.gov/ag.

Schuette said his office monitors propane prices closely and will act when necessary.

“Michigan families struggling with rising heating costs and the bitter cold should not have to worry about whether they are paying a fair price for propane,” he said. “These circumstances are not a free pass for price gouging. We are monitoring propane prices closely, and we will not hesitate to take action if evidence of price gouging surfaces.”

In a recent letter to President Barack Obama, Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow urged action to deal with the shortage and prevent price gouging.

“We have heard some reports from Michigan that prices are reaching $6.29 per gallon in some communities. We are concerned that the extreme price increases could be due, at least in part, to excessive speculation,” the letter reads. “We urge you to direct federal agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, to investigate and stop any predatory actions.”

The pair also asked that the energy emergency be extended past Feb. 11, until the propane shortage is completely resolved.

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