By Josh Moniz
PEMBERTON — Minnesota’s propane crisis has many faces and one of them is that of Natally Rodriguez, a single mother from Pemberton with three teenage children who recently faced a scare with the spiking propane costs.
Congressman Tim Walz met with Rodriguez on Friday morning to learn details about how the propane situation is impacting people in his district. He said the information he gleans will be used to guide him in hearings and potential legislation.
One woman’s struggle
Rodriguez said she lost her $12-per-hour job in September and was among those that lost unemployment benefits Dec. 28. Despite the setbacks, she said she acted quickly to control her budget and stabilize her finances.
“We were good about controlling costs. We don’t have cable. We’ve cut everything ... except water, electricity and the phone,” Rodriguez said.
She said she even accounted for the roughly $400 she spends annually on propane. However, she was shocked to find the bill had leapt to over $1,000 this winter.
Her situation is being experienced by numerous other Minnesotans who heat with propane. Homeowners have seen local propane costs rapidly rise from around $1.50 per gallon last fall to a peak of $5 per gallon this month. The situation was caused by a reduced propane supply, which was caused by increased farmer consumption and transportation issues, intersecting with increased residential consumption to combat cold temperatures.
Rodriguez’s problem was further complicated by a quirk of the propane industry: Businesses that supply to homes often require a minimum purchase of around 200 gallons before they will fill a tank. As a result, her $400 heating assistance this year was both insufficient for her annual need and to qualify her for servicing.
The problem was severe enough in Minnesota that Gov. Mark Dayton issued an emergency order last week for the state’s LIHEAP heating assistance. The order expanded the eligibility for the program and increased the crisis funding that could be provided to homeowners.
The order came at a vital time for Rodriguez, who only had 5 percent of her tank left. The additional heating assistance funding she received provided her with enough to reach a minimum purchase. Prior to the order, she would have only received an additional $500 and would have been just short of a purchase.
Minnesota Valley Action Council Housing Services Director Judd Schultz, who also attended the meeting, said Rodriguez’s situation is poignant because she took the ideal approach to regulating her propane consumption and still needed crisis payments. He said her situation is being shared by the roughly 10 percent of Americans who heat their homes with propane.
Schultz said his organization’s allocation of crisis funds has significantly spiked this winter. He said this was helping Minnesotans, but three major problems were still looming for these homeowners:
First, he said many people had switched to space heaters to warm their homes, which left them with a massive electrical bill that some could not pay. He said these people are protected from having their public utilities shut off until April 15. However, he said they will face the problem after the deadline and this type of cost is not eligible for the same funding.
Rodriguez said she briefly tried space heaters last year, only to stop when she received a $500 electricity bill.
Second, he said increased funding this winter will exhaust the state’s LIHEAP funding by March 10. He said this will leave organizations that help with heating assistance without any funding to allocate.
Finally, he said that even with the increased crisis funding, homeowners were consuming their propane fast enough to exhaust their supply by April. He said many offset next year’s costs by shutting of heating during warm days. He said this consumption rate will add to their future costs.
Walz said the immediate focus needs to be on temporary actions, such as Dayton’s order, to speed up the arrival of propane to the state. He said it is important to ensure people have enough to keep themselves safe during sub-zero temperatures.
Following that, the Mankato Democrat said he is joining lawmakers in petitioning President Obama to take actions that will increase the national propane supply and release additional LIHEAP funding for states.
Schultz said the allocations of LIHEAP funds would net Minnesota around $20 million, which would cover the funding need through April. He said it would likely help solve the other related problems facing homeowners.
He also said that if the federal government fails to act, Dayton would likely ask the Legislature for around $17 million to achieve the same goal.
Going forward, Walz said he wants to hold congressional hearings on the issue to determine the best solutions to prevent this unusual problem from recurring. He said that stories like Rodriguez’s will help bring attention to the issue and motivate action.