Propane prices, supplies a pain

The average price of propane in Ohio has increased by more than $1 since the beginning of the year, and nationwide the average retail price is up by $1.62 since October, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association.

That’s put people like Cindy Black in a bind.

Black’s husband is working a construction job at Willow Island, W.Va., and the Canton couple have been living in their RV in Clyde Huddleston’s park near Charles Street in Marietta since last July.

“Earlier this year we were paying around $80 to fill our tank, but our last bill was for $125,” Black said. “And with the cold weather we’re going through a tank about every two weeks now.”

Huddleston, who sells bottled propane, said he’s currently able to keep a supply on hand, but a couple weeks ago he did run out for about four days.

“I usually try to keep a supply of 350 to 400 gallons of propane to sell,” he said Tuesday. “Right now I’m getting plenty, but the price has not gone down.”

Bill Coy, general manager of Rutland Bottle Gas in The Plains, a supplier for Huddleston, said he’s been paying a hefty price just to have propane delivered.

“I’ve paid $4.40 a gallon for propane coming out of Canada, but the freight cost on one recent shipment alone was $4,000,” he said. “We’re getting it wherever we can and trying to keep the consumer price down.”

Coy said Rutland did ration propane for a time last month, setting a limit of 100 gallons per customer. He said although the rationing has ended, people are still only having their tanks partially filled because they can’t afford the higher price for propane.

Russ Cogswell, owner of Apex Feed and Supply on Greene Street, said the store was running low on bottled propane and had ordered more, but the supplier could not give an exact date when the next shipment would be delivered.

“We buy through Blue Rhino. They fill our bottles and take back the empties, but the demand has been so great they can’t keep up,” he said. “Usually after we order they can fill it within a week.”

Cogswell said this year’s unusually cold winter weather has taken its toll on both customers and propane distributors.

“We have been selling a lot of heaters-electric, propane, and kerosene, anything that provides heat,” he said.

County Road Nine resident Jody Alden said her family has been using wood pellets for most of their heating needs, but they have a 500 gallon propane tank for backup heat.

“Since it’s been so cold we’ve had to rely on the propane more than usual,” she said. “We filled the tank back in January, but we’re probably going to have to fill it again, and I’m not looking forward to that.”

Alden said the heating costs are making a dent in the family’s budget.

Mary Bayless, senior case manager for Washington-Morgan Community Action’s Home Energy Assistance Program, said clients who heat with propane are struggling.

“A lot of people are calling for heating assistance to help pay for propane, and many, who have already received assistance this season and need more propane, can’t afford to buy it now,” she said. “And if they can afford it, companies are often unable to deliver propane because of inclement weather.”

Bayless also noted the number of people who qualify for heating assistance is lower this year due to federal regulations that reduced the income guidelines from 200 percent to 175 percent of the poverty level.

Coy said the short supply of propane has begun to ease up, but it may be some time before prices also relax.

“We’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s been a tough winter so far,” he said.

In an attempt to address the propane issue, Ohio Congressman Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green, and others, including U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, called for an extended waiver on trucking regulations that limit the amount of propane that can be delivered.

Latta explained that the shortage has come from increased use of propane for drying rain-soaked grain in the fall, problems with transportation of the gas, and high exports of the fuel.

“You put those all together, and we’re pretty much coming into a disaster,” he said.

The legislators sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx last week, and in response Foxx extended the waiver that allows truckers to work more hours through March 1.

Latta also plans to follow up with a letter to President Obama that would ask him to double the weight limit on drivers transporting propane, noting there is plenty of propane available in the U.S., but the problem is getting it to the Midwest and East Coast.

Johnson said he’s heard from a lot of people about difficulties in acquiring propane.

“This is an issue affecting not only Eastern and Southeastern Ohio, but across our region,” he said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

“I support, and have signed on to Congressman Latta’s letter to extend the emergency exemption providing relief for commercial motor vehicles delivering propane and home heating fuels,” Johnson said.