Propane shortage adds to winter woes
By Elisha Fieldstadt, Staff Writer, NBC News
(NBC) - As meteorologists on Monday added up to 10 inches of snow to their frigid forecasts for the Northeast and Midwest this week, the regions are struggling with a lack of the essential resources residents need to keep warm.
While the cold won't be quite as unbearable as the Polar Vortex system earlier this month, people in the Great Lakes, interior Northeast, and northern New England can expect to be shoveling, according to Weather.com.
Sand used to keep roads safe during snowstorms and ice buildup is running low in some states, as are the budgets to buy the sand and deploy trucks and plows. Propane stocks in many states have also hit disconcerting lows since the winter started with meager allowances and back-to-back cold spells have increased the energy dilemma for millions.
In anticipation of the cold and snow, Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared an energy emergency focused on expediting propane GAS shipments in order to mitigate tight supplies.
His declaration permits propane shippers from other states to drive more hours, which "will help get propane companies resupplied so Ohioans who use propane to heat their homes can stay warm," Kasich said.
A shortage of propane gas in the Midwest and Northeast is impacting millions of homes and businesses in rural areas beyond the reach of utilities.
More than 14 million families across the U.S. use propane to fuel their furnaces, according to the Propane Education & Research Council.
Kasich followed the lead of officials in 17 other U.S. states — mostly in the Midwest and North — who declared energy emergencies and loosened rules for propane transportation from other states, most of which are effective until the end of January.
In many of these states, residents are also being urged to cut down on propane usage since supplies are limited.
"Propane customers in the Upper Peninsula should use their propane supplies wisely in the coming weeks by reducing usage and avoiding energy waste," Michigan Public Service Commission Chairman John Quackenbush told NBC affiliate WILX on Monday.
In addition to residential propane customers, over 1 million businesses across the U.S. rely on propane.
However, the energy shortage is not just a result of families and business owners trying to keep buildings comfortable during the persistent cold spells. The Midwest started the winter with a propane deficit since a greater than usual amount of propane was used in November to dry corn crops during a rain-soaked harvest, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
"Propane prices in the Midwest will likely need to rise to keep propane in the region," according to the EIA.
In the middle of January, average propane prices across the nation were 58 cents per gallon higher than the same period last year, EIA reported.
But states' and Americans' wallets aren't only affected by the cold. Snow has also depleted winter weather budgets in a large portion of the country.
In addition to a declaration expediting fuel, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also relaxed rules pertaining to salt deliveries "due to multiple winter events that have depleted stockpiles of rock salt needed to treat roadways surfaces."
Chicago also slashed their winter-weather budget by more than half during January's first storm and NBC Chicago reported that most of the money was used up in vain on sand. When snow is accompanied by sub-zero temperatures, salt freezes and is ineffective.
Chicago officials announced Monday that 200 snow plows and salt spreaders would deploy during the upcoming storm "to help keep Chicago streets safe and passable," even though the salt might not work.
The Windy City will appropriately be under a wind-chill advisory on Monday, as "feels-like" conditions could dip as low as minus-20 degrees, and lake effect snow piles on top of the 5 inches that the city already experienced over the weekend.
New Hampshire blew through half of the state's $42 million winter-weather budget within the first week of the new year, said Bill Boynton, a spokesman with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.
"These funds are used to support a fleet of 700-plus snow plows that plow and treat 4,600 miles of state highways" with salt, Boynton said. "We were out there again for much of the weekend," he said.
Salt trucks and plows can expect to be busy again in coming days.
Winter storm warnings have been issued for New England, Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C., as well as areas along the coast in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, said Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Snow will begin falling from D.C. to New York Tuesday morning and build up to 4-8 inches, Vaccaro said. The Midwest and New England will see accumulations between 5-8 inches, according to Weather.com.
Four inches already fell over the weekend in Lafayette, Ind., and caused a fiery, 13-vehicle highway pileup that left four people injured. The National Weather Service said up to 10 inches could accumulate in Central Indiana by Monday night.
As the cold persists through Thursday, a second snowfall is likely in the Upper Midwest, Great Lakes, and Northeast, according to Weather.com.