Officials deal with propane shortage

Published 3:00 pm Saturday, February 1, 2014

Freeborn County officials are asking the public to exercise caution when using alternative heat sources in light of recent Midwest propane shortages.

Much of the Northeast and Midwest has seen propane prices skyrocket in recent weeks, prompting state officials to look for ways to alleviate supply problems and investigate reports of price gouging. Minnesota’s Executive Council, chaired by Gov. Mark Dayton, met Friday and extended the governor’s emergency declaration related to the propane shortage, authorizing state agencies to take a number of steps in response.

“We are starting to hear that people are out in certain places” in the state, state Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman told the Executive Council. “Prices are skyrocketing … it’s going to be touch-and-go for at least a few weeks, with forecasts for continued below-zero weather. The supply issues in Minnesota and nationally are not trending in a positive direction.”

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Rothman said propane was running about $6.77 a gallon by the end of this week, compared to $1.50 to $1.70 at this time last year. On Thursday, Minnesota received an additional $15.8 million in federal energy assistance funds; the state Commerce Department recently increased crisis benefits from $500 to $1,000 for households that heat with propane or heating oil. Minnesota officials are calling on the federal government to approve more funding for energy assistance.

Dayton joined in a conference call Thursday between several Midwestern governors and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who told his fellow governors he would extend a waiver of state trucking rules that had been slowing movement of propane from Texas to points north.

An estimated 250,000 Minnesota households use propane to heat their homes, mostly in rural areas.

Minnesota initiated a hotline on Thursday for residents who are worried about running out of propane or have other questions about the situation. The hotline took more than 80 calls in its first day.

Freeborn County public health and emergency management officials want people to be careful with portable electric heaters, kerosene heaters, wood and pellet burning heaters and portable propane heaters. Any heating appliance with an open flame needs to be vented to the outside due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. With the recent snow and ice, now is a good time to check that outside venting is clear and working properly, a press release states.

Other tips are:

• Keep anything flammable-including pets and people-at a minimum of three feet away from heating equipment.

• Make sure portable space heaters have an automatic shutoff.

• Turn off portable heaters when leaving the room or going to bed.

• Space heaters need constant watching. Never leave a space heater on when you go to sleep.

• Make sure all cords are in good shape and check them periodically for fraying or breaks.

• Conserve energy as much as possible.  Turn down thermostats and be aware of propane use.

• Check in on your family members, neighbors and friends. Call 911 only in a crisis.

• Reach out to family and friends for assistance.

Minnesota residents with questions about the current propane situation or who are in danger of running out of heating fuel can call the public hotline at 1-800-657-3504. The hotline is staffed with experts from the Minnesota Department of Commerce who can provide information about energy assistance programs, connect callers with local resources and provide other information. Locally, energy assistance applications can be obtained through Semcac by calling 1-800-944-3281. Additional crisis funding is available but you must qualify for energy assistance to receive this funding.

For additional information on the propane shortage, contact Freeborn County Emergency Management at 507-377-5221. Also check the Freeborn County website