Franken discusses propane shortage

WINTHROP-U.S. Sen. Al Franken discussed last winter’s propane shortage that spiked prices and how to prevent it from happening again, with dozens of local and area farm and energy leaders Friday at the United Farmers Coop Event Center.

Last winter’s propane shortage was caused in part by weather conditions causing harvesting to go on at the same time as drying operations across the Upper Midwest.

Solutions to mid-2014 and beyond supply issues caused by losing 40 percent of Minnesota propane (about 160 million annual gallons) due to rerouting of the Cochin Pipeline was among the key issues.

Solutions discussed included increasing propane storage and transportation infrastructure, replacing aging truck drivers, finding new propane sources and increasing existing building energy efficiency.

“The cheapest fuel is the fuel we don’t use,” Franken said. “There isn’t enough (propane) storage, but we can add it. Rail cars are piling up now when demand is down. Bailing out the storage ratio is a challenge that involves lots of planning.”

Franken said the Surface Transportation Board (STB) is meeting privately, one-on-one with shippers from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 14 at the Crowne Plaza & Suites Minneapolis Airport in Bloomington. He urged people interested in the meeting concerning continuing railroad service issues involving propane and other agricultural issues to contact his St. Paul office at 651-221-1016.

Persons wishing to meet with the STB’s Rail Customer and Public Assistance Program (RCPA) are encouraged to e-mail their requests, which the RCPA will treat as confidential by close of business on Monday, May 12, 2014 to higginsm@stb.dot.gov or call 202-450-9284. Include a preferred half-hour time slot.

American Soybean Association President Bob Worth of Lake Benton said the United States used to have the best transportation infrastructure but not anymore. “We’ve fallen behind with old locks and dams, road and bridges. Let’s get it back to where it was,” Worth said. “I had propane sitting in storage tanks this winter but wasn’t able to pipe it back out when I really needed it.”

Drew Combs, Vice President of CHS Inc. Propane, Inver Grove Heights, said a steady propane supply is needed. “We need a pipeline. You can’t rely on rail service for propane,” Combs said. “If a new pipeline is available, we need 20 percent of it.”

“We’re getting veterans back from Afghanistan. We should be able to get them licensed to drive trucks here,” Franken said. “We should be able to retrofit homes and buildings for winter weather too. That should create lots of jobs.”

United Farmers Coop, Winthrop Chief Financial Officer Jeff Nielsen said the biggest propane issue is to fix infrastructure issues. “We’re adding 40 percent more propane storage and working with farm, business and industrial customers on their propane budgeting and storage,” Nielsen added.

In Mankato Friday afternoon, Franken promoted partnerships with businesses and community and technical colleges with a Community College to Career Fund Act. The program would help close the work skills gap by funding schools to train workers for high-demand jobs like information technology, health care and advanced manufacturing skills.

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed to fbusch@nujournal.com.

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