Propane Price Spike Leaves Mid-Mo in the Cold

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AUDRAIN COUNTY - As temperatures dropped this winter, propane prices spiked, leaving some mid-Missourians in the cold. A series of increased demands more than doubled propane prices for residential customers.

Residential propane prices across Missouri averaged $1.90 in November. Fast forward two months and prices skyrocketed to $3.99 by the end of January.

Tom May, director of employee/public relations for MFA Oil, said multiple factors contributed to the spike.

"We're exporting additional capacity from what's been brought on by natural gas production. And then we saw a huge amount of propane demand for grain-drying this year, the corn crop came out very wet and they used propane to dry the grain down, so we saw a huge demand for that. And then really, the thing that came on top of that, we had a huge cold snap that started back in November."

According to the Missouri Climate Center, the 2013-2014 winter is the worst the state has seen in 35 years. In mid-Missouri alone, temperatures dipped to between five and six degrees below average.Those brutally cold temperatures coupled with a slew of winter storms drove up demand and delivery time across the country.

MFA Oil typically receives its propane from the country's second largest terminal in Conway, Kansas. However, that hub could not meet Missouri's demand, forcing trucks to travel further.

"We were only getting two-thirds of our needs met through the local terminal," May said. "So we were having to send trucks to Texas and Mississippi and those sort of places. So instead of having a two-hour roundtrip to deliver 10,000 gallons of propane, you were talking two to three days trip."

May said the average customer uses 480 gallons of propane per year. However, due to the colder temperatures, some customers are using up to 700 gallons. Thus, people are footing the bill for not only more propane, but more expensive propane as well, "It's pretty significant to people's pocketbooks," May said.

May added increased prices coupled with increased demand are harshest for low-income households because those families are only able to purchase propane on an "as-needed" basis versus filling up the entire tank at the beginning of the season when prices were still low, "The folks that are really constrained by how much money they have and are kinda living hand to mouth, they're the ones that are forced into buying propane when it's at these exceptionally high rates."

One of those customers is Tina Watson, a single mother of six living in Audrain County. The once full-time working mother is now trying to scrape by on a monthly disability check.

In October 2009, Watson achieved her dream- she graduated from college.

She began working full-time as a medical billing specialist for Walgreens Option Care. But just a few months later, a mysterious ailment plagued her. Watson could no longer enjoy her long walks, but rather she could barely travel a block because of severe headaches and migraines. These symptoms coupled with her fibromyalgia and frequent doctor's appointments made going to work increasingly difficult. On April 30, 2010, Watson had to quit her job to focus on her health.

Doctors discovered she had a Chiari malformation, a structural defect in the cerebellum according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In November 2010, Watson underwent brain surgery to remove a vertebrae and lessen the pressure on her brain.

Watson is currently supporting herself and three of her children who still live at home on a monthly disability check. For the past two years, she has sacrificed taking her medication to provide other things for her children.

Until this bitterly cold winter, Watson and her family could get by. But this season's propane prices proved too expensive, "I can handle just about anything else, but not being able to provide for my children, I can't tell you how that makes you feel as a parent, you know, just to provide the basic necessities because you can't afford it."

For Watson, propane both heats her home and water. Due to the spike, Watson and three of her sons resorted to showering at family members' homes, turning down the heat as low as possible to 60-degrees Farenheit and investing in a few space heaters for the boys' bedrooms.

"It hurts me that they have to go through it," Watson said. "I know it makes them stronger, too. But as a parent, you think that's something I should be providing for them and when I fail to do that, that hurts."

In January, Watson's parents chipped in on the $583 bill for the minimum delivery of 200 gallons. But that delivery only lasted 20 days. By February, Watson had to find help elsewhere. Central Missouri Community Action in Columbia helped foot the $669 bill for 150 gallons following Gov. Jay Nixon's decision in early February to increase assistance for low-income propane customers.

Despite the help, Watson worries her family might be left out in the cold once again, "I don't know how long it's gonna last and I don't know how to afford anymore."

If Watson runs out this month, she said her sons would have to stay with their sisters, "I would have to probably split up my family."

Watson has one wish, "I just hope spring gets here soon."