Propane suppliers weather shortage

Local distributors are finding it harder to get propane but so far have been able to get enough for their customers.

A series of events beginning in October – wet grain crops in the Midwest requiring massive amounts of propane to dry them prior to storage coupled by infrastructure realignments which inhibited the transportation of propane, followed by a massive winter storm and bitter cold temperatures – have led to a significant shortage of propane, according to the National Propane Gas Association.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the demand for propane was at the highest recorded level during November and December. This was followed by extreme cold in late December and early January, impacting the majority of the nation. Additionally, the extreme weather has caused interruptions in the availability and delivery of propane.

The national average price for a gallon of propane spiked this week to a little over $4, up from $2.96 from the previous week, according to the EIA. About 5.5 million homes are heated with propane, mostly in rural areas.

Locally, both CMP Energy and CTR Supply have been able to acquire propane but not as easily as in the past.

“Transportation is an issue. We have to go farther and farther to get our supply. We usually pull it out of the DuBois and Pittsburgh areas,” said George Pleskonko, propane manager for CMP Energy, Philipsburg, which delivers to homes and businesses in Clearfield, Centre, Cambria and parts of Blair County. “We got a load last week from South Carolina, and in 17 years, I never had to go to that extreme. It is like ping pong. Everyone is bouncing everywhere.”

Dave Helsel, owner of CTR Supply, Duncansville, said, “We haven’t had a problem getting it yet. We don’t have any extra. Sunday our supply was down to about 7 percent. We were scraping the bottom, but we were able to get more.”

CTR serves 2,000 customers in Blair, Bedford and Huntingdon counties.

The shortage has led to higher propane prices.

“We had to raise prices about $1 a gallon in the last two weeks. We hope it is just temporary. I would like it to be just two weeks, but it may last through February and into March,” Pleskonko said.

“We had to raise our price about 33 to 35 percent over what it was two weeks ago,” Helsel said.

Because of the shortage, it can take longer for the distributors to deliver propane, and they may not be able to completely fill a tank.

“It used to be if you wanted a load of gas, you could call, and it would take two or three days to get it delivered. Now I don’t know when my next load will come in,” Pleskonko said. “We like to fill tanks but have been selective and only filling some half full. From a business standpoint, it is horrible to do that. We are not getting near the profitability when we short a customer.”

Help is on the way to aid with deliveries.

At the direction of Gov. Tom Corbett, PennDOT has extended the temporary waiver on certain restrictions on commercial drivers to allow for continued smooth delivery of heating oil and propane gas to homes and businesses for heating purposes.

“Winter shows no signs of easing its barrage of bitterly cold weather, and we are extending the waiver to prevent any possibility of people being left without deliveries of fuel,” said PennDOT Secretary Barry J. Schoch.

The waiver, first issued Jan. 10, extends the limits on hours of service for fuel delivery drivers. Drivers usually must take a mandatory rest period after 11 hours behind the wheel. Under the waiver, the limit for driving hours is extended to 14 hours.

Not a large percentage of people use propane to heat their homes today, but the numbers are increasing.

For example, 3.6 percent of Pennsylvania homeowners use propane to heat their homes. Locally the numbers range from 1 percent in Blair County to 4.8 percent in Clearfield County, according to the American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It is more competitive in price than oil and electricity, and it is cleaner,” Helsel said.

“We also deliver heating oil, that is dying, propane has been growing,” Pleskonko said.

Helsel said customers should conserve their propane.

“Conserve as much as you can; don’t assume gas is going to be available if it stays this cold,” Helsel said. “There is truly a shortage. It is not a marketing ploy.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.