February 25, 2014 Updated: February 25, 2014 at 8:20 am
The Great Propane Crisis of 2014 hit home with a phone call on a January evening.
It was Kristin Westman, associate manager at Apollo Propane, our propane supplier, calling to warn us that supplies of propane were tight and prices had skyrocketed. Westman told us we might have to let the level of propane in the tank in our backyard fall more than we were used to in hopes that prices would come back to more reasonable levels. In the meantime, she suggested ways to stretch our supply: using our wood-burning stove, plugging in electric heaters.
If you live in Colorado Springs, you're presumably a customer of Colorado Springs Utilities and heat your home with natural gas. If you live in the country, you likely heat your home with propane and, like me, have a big tank that's filled from time to time. (Our tank holds 400 gallons of propane, so it's not like I can carry it to Lowe's and swap it for a full tank like I do with the propane bottle for our barbecue grill.)
Our normal routine is for Apollo to check our tank monthly during the winter months and top it off if needed. Most homes use 100 to 150 gallons a month in the winter, Westman says. We could opt to wait until our tank was close to empty instead of topping it off, but that would be a more concentrated jolt to the pocketbook; plus keeping the level high, Westman notes, means you then have the luxury of waiting things out in case of, say, a blizzard that puts deliveries behind - or a price spike like we just experienced.
Nationwide, the recent propane shortages were a big deal; at least two-dozen states declared energy emergencies during the height of the crisis. Falcon-based Apollo never had difficulty in getting propane, Westman says. But there was a lot of time spent on the phone keeping us and the rest of Apollo's roughly 2,000 customers informed of the evolving situation.
The good news is that the crisis has eased and prices are going back down instead of up, at least for now. (The president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council told The Associated Press that supplies remain tight and that more intense blasts of winter cold could send prices back up.)
Westman called again this month to tell us of the falling prices and to give us an option: We could top off our tank with 100 gallons, so we wouldn't have to worry for a while about prices going back up, or wait longer, hoping that prices would continue to fall.
We took the safe route. We paid $3.44 a gallon, up from the $2.34 a gallon we paid for our previous fill-up in late December but down from the peak of $4.29 that Apollo saw. The price has continued to trickle down since then, but we have no regrets. Apollo, meanwhile, was able to time its purchases to avoid "that $5 or $6 propane that we heard about," Westman says. And programs and organizations such as the Colorado LEAP program and Mercy's Gate provided assistance to those struggling financially with heating costs, she says.
Why did prices jump so dramatically? There were several factors, including, of course, the savage winter cold that gripped much of the country and drove up demand (two words: polar vortex). Westman, in her first call to us, also singled out growing exports.
Two years ago, she says, propane exports were under 60,000 barrels a day. As of October, U.S. exports of propane and propylene had grown to 400,000 barrels a day.
"That's just an amazing increase in exports," she says.
While she's not advocating a ban on exports - "I know that's unreasonable," she says - she does hope the current situation opens eyes to the impact of growing exports on domestic supplies as well as highlighting storage issues.
"We just don't see the storage capacity where it needs to be," she says. There's little storage capacity in Colorado, she notes, so the state relies "pretty heavily" on propane shipments from neighboring states, particularly Kansas.
"It's something that we've been a little frustrated with over the years."
Westman's dad and grandfather started Apollo Propane in 1984, so this year is the company's 30th anniversary.
Dealing with the crisis, she says, "was not quite how I had planned on celebrating."
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes a horse, a mule, two goats, three dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/thecountrylife.