Propane tanks dot many rural areas of the state, and they serve an important role in keeping homes warm -- but prices are skyrocketing and that is literally leaving some cash-strapped families in the cold.
This winter season has been marked by persistent bouts of brutal, subzero temperatures and budget-busting heating bills. On Monday, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton declared a peacetime state of emergency due to a severe shortage of propane and other home heating fuels on Monday.
In a way, the move follows a slowly building disaster. The price of propane was stable through summer, but it began a steady increase in October, shooting upward 30 percent. The official price is currently $2.86 per gallon -- but consumers won't find it at the price. In fact, retail prices are much higher, with $4.75 a typical find. Now, state officials are concerned about price gouging.
One family living in Turtle Lake, Wis. ran out of propane 6 days ago. Since then, the 4 adults, 3 young children and 5 dogs have been wishing cabin fever could keep them warm. Instead, they've been heating their home with space heaters since their propane ran out last week -- but their pipes are frozen.
"I told them -- can't do laundry," Jolynn Steiner told Fox 9 News. "Shower is frozen."
When the family called to resupply, they found out the price had been hiked from $2.40 to $3.85 a gallon.
"I said, 'Woo! That's kind of expensive," Rachel Duffy said. "They say, 'Yeah, fuel demands right now.'"
Duffy believes she has fallen victim to price gouging, but that's not the most aggravating part of her story. She's upset that even though they've already paid $578 for their next propane delivery, the 150 gallons they're still waiting for won't even fill their tank. Worse still, the company also wants to charge them an extra $175 for an emergency delivery even though they don't have any money left.
"It's very scary," Jolynn Steiner admitted. "We don't want the kids to get sick. We don't want the baby to get sick and catch pneumonia."
Their neighbors are facing a similar struggle by paying $4.48 a gallon for propane, and the Wisconsin community of Turtle Lake isn't alone. Propane shortages and price spikes are posing a big problem across the country.
Many are wondering why prices have risen so dramatically. To some extent, supply and demand plays a role, but farmers also used a lot of propane in the fall to dry their corn crops. Furthermore, more propane is being exported than ever before, and many experts believe there just isn't enough capacity.
WHAT DOES DAYTON'S ORDER DO?
Prior to issuing the order, the Dayton administration persuaded the federal government and the state of Texas to waive shipping restrictions and ramp up transportation of propane supplies to the state.
Under the new state of emergency, the Minnesota Emergency Operations Plan will be activated in order to coordinate response efforts and to help local governments respond.
Additionally, the adjutant general of Minnesota may order active duty personnel and military equipment as needed to provide emergency assistance and relief services.
On Tuesday, Dayton plans to meet with propane suppliers.
Dayton and his administration have also joined members of the state's congressional delegation in a petition asking President Barack Obama for additional emergency help and a halt to U.S. propane exports.
Dayton is not the only governor to have del cared a state of emergency either. Leaders in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Alabama are also following suit.
GET HELP WITH HEATING
Minnesota has an energy assistance program to help low-income residents and those on fixed incomes, like seniors, stay warm during the winter months. That program just got a $3.4-billion boost from Congress, an increase of $169 million from the sequester levels.
"The most important issue for all Minnesotans during the winter is maintaining a safe and warm place to stay, and I encourage families and individuals who need assistance in heating their home to apply for energy assistance," said Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. "This extended cold snap and sky-rocketing propane prices can present Minnesotans with tough choices between putting food on the table or staying warm – and we are here to tell Minnesotans that crisis funds are available to help with their heating needs."
Last year, 147,636 Minnesota households received energy assistance, and $109 million of that was covered by federal funds. The average grant is $500 per household, and houses where income is less than 50 percent of the state's median income -- $43,642 for a family of four -- may qualify on a first-come, first-served basis while funds last.
Applications for the Minnesota Energy Assistance Program can be found online, and additional information can also be found by calling 1-800-657-3710 or 651-539-1882.
In addition to the emergency order, Dayton has also asked Rothman to use his authority to protect Minnesotans from price gouging. Anyone who believes they may have been a victim is encouraged to call 651-539-1500 or 800-657-3602.