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A pedestrian walks through the snow in Somerville, Mass., Jan. 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder) A pedestrian walks through the snow in Somerville, Mass., Jan. 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)  

Millions of Americans suffer from propane shortage during cold snap

The weather outside is frightful, but the propane needed to heat homes is becoming more expensive and harder to come by for millions of Americans in the Midwest and the Northeast.

The propane shortage affecting 24 states has prompted federal lawmakers to look into the issue after federal energy regulators issued orders to pipeline companies “to temporarily provide priority treatment to propane shipments from Mont Belvieu, Texas, to locations in the Midwest and Northeast in order to help alleviate a shortage of propane supplies in those regions.”

This is the first time that such an order has ever been issued by federal energy regulators.

“We’re mindful of the emergency situation that has developed in parts of the country where bitter cold weather has created problems for consumers who need supplies of propane,” said Acting Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Cheryl LaFleur in a statement.

Propane prices have spike this winter due to long-lasting cold weather, which is expected to continue for the next two weeks. Prices jumped across the Midwest in January and inventories were down significantly from last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

EIA reports that residential propane prices were $3.89 per gallon during the week of Feb. 3, quite a bit higher than the $2.80 per gallon reported during the last week of December. But early February prices were down from $4.01 per gallon during the week of Jan. 27.

“As you may know, households and businesses across the Midwest have seen significant spikes in the price of propane fuels during the severe winter cold,” nearly 40 federal lawmakers wrote in a letter to leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Any further reduction in supply threatens to leave our constituents without the fuel necessary to heat their homes and to keep livestock and poultry barns warm,” the lawmakers continued.

Despite soaring propane production in recent years, supplies dwindled because of the frigid weather that has been plaguing the country this winter. But energy experts are still unsure of why the system of pipelines and trucks designed to get the fuel to where it needs to be broken down this winter.

Some say that demand for propane had been steady in recent years leading companies to export more of the fuel to more profitable areas. But this winter drove demand through the roof and local inventories — which are generally small — could not handle the increased need.

There are also regulations to consider. Twenty states have declared emergencies or suspended some transportation regulations to speed up propane deliveries, The New York Times reports, including how long propane truck drivers can stay on the road. Federal lawmakers have also called for the Transportation Department to allow propane truck drivers to stay on the road longer.

Adding to the problem, the Cochin Pipeline from Canada was unable to deliver any propane to the Midwest because it was down for maintenance late last year as cold weather began to set in. EIA also notes that rail transportation disruptions from bad weather and other factors impacted propane inventories in January — though Midwest supplies have rebounded somewhat.

No matter the cause, the situation is dire for millions across the country. Democratic senators have called for emergency Low Income Energy Assistance Program grants for those states which have been affected by the shortage. A group of Minnesota representatives called on the White House to help ensure that people had enough fuel to “keep livestock and poultry barns warm.”

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