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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published January 31 2014

There's plenty of propane, just not in Upper Midwest where it's needed

ST. PAUL – Millions of Midwesterners face the threat of not being able to buy enough propane to heat their homes and businesses at a time when the country has more of the fuel than ever.

The propane just is not where it needs to be, the Propane Education and Research Council reported this week.

Upper Midwest propane users also received a couple sparks of good news this week.

First, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told Midwest governors in a conference call that he would suspend trucking rules that restricted transportation of propane from Texas to areas of the north experiencing propane shortages and high prices.

Second, the Obama administration announced it would release more heating assistance money for people who cannot afford propane and other fuels.

The propane council announced that it will investigate specifically why the shortage occurred and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

Politicians and the propane council reported that two main problems appear to have caused the propane shortage, and accompanying record-high prices, beyond high demand for the heating fuel due to cold weather: transportation problems and rising propane exports.

Transportation woes have slowed movement of the fuel to the Upper Midwest, the area with the most serious issues and that most relies on propane. A Canadian propane pipeline explosion last weekend cut some supplies, but western North Dakota and Canadian oil booms also take pipelines and rail cars out of the propane supply chain.

In the meantime, government officials say those in the Upper Midwest should conserve fuel and take measures such as ordering propane early, not waiting for tanks to get near empty.

In Minnesota, state officials have opened a hotline for those with propane problems or questions.

The Obama administration on Thursday gave states more funds to help low-income residents who cannot afford paying for heating fuel.

Minnesota will receive $15.8 million more and Wisconsin $14.2 million in additional funds.

About 250,000 Minnesota homes use propane fuel for heat, with businesses and farmers also using it. Most of the homes that use propane are in rural areas.

Governors in Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as North Dakota and South Dakota, have taken actions to deal with the fuel shortage and cost. The most common move is to allow drivers to haul propane beyond hours they normally can work.

People who cannot afford propane may seek help through the federally funded Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program.

Minnesota legislators advise their constituents to take advantage of state aid.

Other forms of assistance may be available through county social service programs, community-based organizations and nonprofit agencies.