Propane prices soar as fuel crisis chills customers

by Jim Boyle
Elk River Star News

Sara Shampine, of Becker, budgets $500 a month for propane during the winter months, but she nearly blew her entire winter budget at Christmastime when she paid more than $1,300 for the scarce source of fuel.
When she called Beaudry Oil and Propane in Elk River to her home this past week, she didn’t even ask to have her 500-gallon tank filled to 80 percent capacity as she normally would.
The fuel company pumped 250 gallons into her tank and handed her a bill for nearly $1,100.
The propane cost $4.39 a gallon, exactly $2 more per gallon than she paid in November.
“That was the first price break I could get,” she said. “That’s still outrageous, but anything less and I would have been paying $4.70 a gallon.”
Shampine’s not alone in her disgust. The challenges area residents are facing flared up on Star News Online Facebook page.
Suppliers find themselves between a rock a hard place as their transportation costs spiral upward and their ability to get fuel diminishes.
Some suppliers are rationing how much they will fill tanks. One Facebook user told the Star News she would have to wait for a delivery. Others families are turning to other sources of heat like wood-burning fireplaces and space heaters, but some have no choice.
“We go through 500 gallons tank every five, six weeks,” Terri Montgomery, of Zimmerman, said. “Who can afford that?”
A shortage in propane has caught the entire Midwest and beyond by storm. Gov. Mark Dayton declared a peacetime state of emergency in Minnesota in response to the severe shortage of propane and other home heating fuel supplies.
The governor met with propane industry suppliers on Wednesday to discuss the shortage and how to improve the supply of propane to Minnesota consumers.
“I’m not sure what he’s going to do,” said Dan Newton, a manager of Lakes Gas in St. Michael while making a delivery to one of two Elk River residences that same day as the governor’s meeting.
Dayton said in a press release he has been trying to persuade the federal government and the state of Texas to waive shipping restrictions and increase the transportation of propane supplies into Minnesota.
Newton said the problem is with the country’s infrastructure.
“They may be producing propane in North Dakota, but they don’t have any way to get it here,” Newton said.
Minnesota draws a great deal of propane from Canada, but distributors there have been rationing how much they send, according to Ken Beaudry, owner of Beaudry Oil and Propane.
There was a run on propane in the fall with an extended harvest season. As frigid temperatures set in last month, a pipeline that sends propane to Minnesota was shut down for a couple weeks for maintenance. That same line is expected to be converted to send fuel product northward as early as this summer.
“We’ve never seen this kind of shortage,” said Beaudry, who has been in his family’s business of providing fuel for 32 years. “Part of the problem is no one saw the usage coming on like it did.”
The Elk River business was scrambling last Thursday when it learned three shipments that were supposed to come in didn’t.
“That threw us into a tizzy,” Beaudry said. “We spent all day trying to find propane.”
It wasn’t until late Thursday that they were able to get some shipments thanks to their network of suppliers.
“It’s hard,” Beaudry said. “I have never had to work this hard. It scares people when they want a fill and can’t get it.”
Drivers who travel to Inver Grove Heights locally or Iowa and other states to secure loads have found themselves waiting in line. Propane, a by-product of gasoline, can only be made so fast.
“Last week we worked very, very hard for our customers to get propane,” Beaudry said. “One driver sat in his truck for 24 hours waiting — literally living and sleeping inside his truck.”
Beaudry is proud to say they have not rationed fuel for their customers, and he credits his team of 50-some employees who have been working long hours and weekends to make that happen.
Beaudry Oil and Propane delivers to communities as far away as Brainerd, Little Falls and Aitken to the north and to Apple Valley to the south. They are not taking on new customers, though.
“I pray a lot,” Beaudry said. “When you give it to God and trust God, you have greater peace.”
By Saturday, Beaudry had managed to get his company’s own tanks full again, and one of the employees emailed his boss to let him know.
“I slept good this (past) weekend,” Beaudry said.
Lakes Gas has had to ration its fuel, something that has given Newton a heavy heart.
“Many times I have broke down (emotionally),” Newton said. “As a manager I feel a sense of responsibility, but when it gets to the point where I don’t know if I will have gas, what else can I do? Unfortunately, it may get to that point.”
He’s urging families to consider alternative heat and fuel sources if they can.
“My parents heat their home with propane,” he said. “Luckily they have a wood fireplace and some heaters.
“I told them they need to shut the propane off. There’s other people who can’t.”
Industry officials also recommend turning the thermostat down to 60 or 65 degrees rather than keeping it at 68 or 70 like many people do.
The financial aspects are hard to take. Newton said one of his deliveries on the weekend totaled $1,300.
“That’s a house payment, and we have a lot of winter left,” he said. “People are going to have to choose between their house payment and heat.”

Editor’s Note: Jim Boyle is editor of the Elk River Star News.

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