By TOM McPARLAND
A nationwide shortage of propane gas is sending Ohio suppliers scrambling to secure enough of the home-heating fuel as another brutal freeze bears down over the region.
With frigid conditions expected to continue into next week, Gov. John R. Kasich issued an emergency declaration over the weekend authorizing propane shippers with valid commercial driver’s licenses to drive more hours and more consecutive days than they normally would.
One of those shippers, a driver for Youngstown Propane Inc., drove through the night and reached the Raleigh suburb of Apex, N.C., at 7 a.m. Wednesday. He made the 10-hour trip to secure about 9,000 gallons of the fuel, which often is used to heat rural homes.
But he wasn’t alone. As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, Bob Jones, owner of Youngstown Propane, still wasn’t clear if his man had secured the load, as drivers from all over the country descended on the North Carolina depot.
“There’s a line like you wouldn’t believe,” Jones said.
Jones first noticed the shortage in early November, when his wholesale suppliers went on allocation. Producers, seeing a shortfall ahead, decreased the amount they would deliver to the wholesalers on their monthly contracts, Jones said.
As a result, local distributors such as Youngstown Propane had less fuel from their suppliers at their disposal. Combine the short supply with high demand from an early and extremely cold winter, and you have a problem.
Normally, Jones needs about 100,000 gallons of propane a week to meet commercial and residential demand. This year, he said he’s getting half of that.
Meanwhile, propane prices, which generally fluctuate between $1.90 and $2.20 per gallon, are up to between $3.50 and $4 per gallon, Jones said.
The shortage is forcing Jones to seek out propane on the spot market, where the law of supply and demand dictates that those who can get hold of the sought-after commodity charge a lot more for it.
“It’s a mess,” and it could last through February and into March, he said.
Youngstown Propane supplies thousands of residential customers with propane to cook, light fireplaces and heat their homes. It also does a significant amount of commercial business with companies that use propane as fuel for forklifts.
Jones said his company has had to prioritize its customers by need, making sure that business and propane-heated homes get the product first.
Still, customers are getting less.
The average propane-heated house has a 500-gallon tank of fuel. Once it gets down to 20 percent full, customers usually get an additional 300 gallons. But now, Jones said, they are only able to get 100 additional gallons.
He blamed propane producers for shipping too much product overseas to the point where it hurt the domestic supply. That , combined with infrastructure problems in pipelines and refineries and high propane demand for grain drying during the fall, hit the area like a “perfect storm” this winter.
“It all kind of hit at once, and here we are with subzero temperatures in January. And this is our second cold snap,” he said.
The company has weathered the storm so far. Jones will receive another shipment of propane in February, and he is approaching the problem on a month-to-month basis.
He stressed that this is a temporary problem, and the shortage will pass.
“We’re going to get through it,” he said. “We’re going to do what we have to do to get through this mess,” he added.