Updated at 5 p.m.
SPRINGFIELD • A wet fall and a chilly winter have triggered a mini-meltdown in the propane industry.
And, if cold temperatures extend into next month, an official with one trade group said distribution problems extending across the Midwest could begin having a negative effect on people who rely on the fuel to heat their homes.
“If the cold weather continues for another two weeks, I’m going to be scared to death,” said John Tibbs, director of education and safety for Illinois Propane Gas association.
Propane distributors have been hit hard by a double-punch of unfavorable weather. In the fall, farmers used more propane than normal to dry their crops after a particularly wet harvest. The recent cold snap also has taxed distributors.
Truckers hauling propane either have to wait hours in long lines to fill up their tankers or they have to drive to other states in order to acquire a load.
The scramble triggered the Illinois Department of Transportation in December to exempt propane drivers from rules governing how long they can be on the road. The U.S. Department of Transportation signed off on a similar exemption this week after two dozen states.
“They’ve been trying to play catch-up for the past couple of months,” said Don Schaefer of the Mid-West Truckers Association.
Don Herring, energy department manager with Evergreen FS, a propane distributor and farm service retailer in Bloomington, said the company normally gets propane from Farmington, Morris or Tuscola. But, because of the problems, they’ve had to send trucks to Kansas and Mississippi.
“Relaxing the trucking rules was a really, really big help,” Herring said.
In Missouri, drivers are traveling to Hattiesburg, Miss., to pick up propane, said Steve Ahrens, executive director of the Missouri Propane Gas Association.
There is no shortage of propane in America, said Ahrens. In fact, the fracking revolution is producing a surplus. Producers export propane to countries where prices are higher than in the U.S.
The problem is that there isn't enough right now in the Midwest, where it's needed. That is producing a spike in prices. The spot market price at a terminal in southern Kansas is more than twice that in northern Texas.
While the distribution problems haven’t caused people to miss deliveries, the price of the fuel has risen 17 percent from its level last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Residential customers often get the chance to lock in prices at the beginning of the season, which will save them from price shocks. Ahrens, of the Missouri association, opted not to lock in for his home supply. “I thought I knew better than the market place,” he said. “This will not be a good year.”
Herring said no matter what the price, the goal is to ensure customers have adequate supplies of propane when they need it.
“Right now, everything is fine. But, there is a deep concern. The longer it stays cold, the worse it will get,” Herring said.
Jim Gallagher of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this story.