The Herald Bulletin

January 24, 2014

Propane shortage spreads as temperatures plunge

Customers forced to pay $5 a gallon as suppliers scramble to find fuel

By Traci Moyer
The Herald Bulletin

---- — ANDERSON — Gary Welborn is a propane customer facing a crisis.

“I just went out to look and, if my gauge is not lying to me, I have 41 to 40 percent left,” he said.

That is about 164 gallons, and if he is careful, it could heat his home for another three weeks.

The problem is, there is a propane shortage spreading across the nation.

Since October, 12.8 million barrels of propane have been consumed in the Midwest, compared to a five-year average of 7.3 million barrels for that same period. On Nov. 1, Midwest propane inventories dropped more than two million barrels, creating the largest single-week stock draw for the month since 1993.

And according to the Indiana Propane Gas Association, propane exports are at a record level. Five years ago the United States was exporting 800 million gallons. This year 4.3 billion gallons have been exported.

Bumper crops harvested late in the season were also wet, requiring farmers to use grain dryers fueled by propane adding to the consumption of local reserves.

With bitter cold temperatures gripping the state this month and more than half a million Hoosiers — who depend on propane as a heating source — dipping into the remaining local supplies of fuel, resources have been depleted.

“Normally I get my propane from Milford, Huntington and Griffith,” said Brian Donahue, who is one of the owners of Donahue Gas, 5170 Indiana 9. “Those are all empty.”

Donahue is now buying his propane from Texas, Mississippi and Alabama, but supplies are limited.

“This is unprecedented,” Donahue said. “I’ve never sold propane over $3 a gallon and it is over $5 now.

“We are rationing it.”

Customers who call Donahue today are looking at a two- or three-week wait for an order — or partial order — to be filled.

That is not good news for the 70-year-old Welborn.

“We have a little space heater, but that won’t even come close to taking care of this house,” Welborn said.

Welborn purchased his fuel in advance, but if he had waited until today to refill his 500-gallon propane tank, it would cost him $1,500 for the six-week supply.

“That looks really scary whenever you are on retirement,” he said.

Donahue has reassured Welborn that he will have fuel when he needs it, but he hopes something will be done by legislators to prevent the situation from ever reoccurring.

“We used to import propane as a nation and now we are exporting it,” Donahue said. “The markets overseas are paying more than we are so they have even sold our reserves.”

To stretch his supplies and fill any emergency needs, Donahue has reached out to his farming customers to buy back or borrow any propane not used in drying crops.

In the last two weeks he has reclaimed 6,000 gallons.

“Every little bit helps," he said. "The farming community has been very gracious to help us out.

“Farmers in general tend to look out for their neighbors.”

Scott Imus, executive director for the Indiana Propane Gas Association, said propane deliveries to local hardware stores have been stopped in an effort to provide the fuel to homeowners first.

“We are also only delivering 150 gallons to homeowners to spread the product around so all our customers have access to it,” he said.

Imus is urging consumers to conserve, something Welborn says he has already done.

“I can’t conserve any more unless I want to see how uncomfortable I can get,” he said.

Like Traci L. Moyer on Facebook and follow her @moyyer on Twitter, or call 648-4250.

Did you know? -- Propane was discovered in 1910, by Dr. Walter O. Snelling. A chemist and explosives expert for the U.S. Bureau of Mines, Snelling made the discovery in a gasoline tank of a newly purchased Ford Model T. He eventually devised a way to use propane for heating, cooking and metal cutting. -- About 90 percent of the nation's propane supplies are produced in the United States. -- Propane is cleaner than most other fuels, is considered to be environmentally friendly and has been recognized as such in the Clean Air Act Amendments. -- Propane furnaces last longer than electric heat pumps. -- According to the U.S. Department of Energy, consumers can pay twice as much to operate a range, water heater, dryer or furnace with electricity than they would with propane gas. -- Propane is the third most popular gas used in vehicle transportation. -- Using propane fuel does not require the use of the large, unsightly tanks often associated with them. Underground storage tanks can be used in single-family homes and housing developments because the nontoxic fuel will not contaminate aquifers or soil. -- Propane is colorless and virtually odorless, which is why a strong rotten-egg smelling additive is used in the manufacturing process to make leaks easier to detect. If a leak is detected, avoid using lights, cell phones, or an open flame and evacuate the building immediately. Once outdoors, report the leak to your propane supplier. Sources: Propane Education & Research Council and www.declerklpgas.com