An unprecedented jump in propane prices (doubling within a couple days last week) has some rural Iowans wondering if they'll be able to pay their heating bills this winter. State and federal leaders have vowed to get to the bottom of the LP-gas price explosion.
Propane prices hit $5 per gallon in some areas of Iowa, according to a special survey by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. The statewide average rose to a record $4.18 a gallon on Thursday January 23. A day earlier the same survey showed an average of $2.61 per gallon. A year ago, propane cost $1.39 a gallon, according to weekly data collected by the state ag department.
A wet corn harvest this past fall reduced propane supplies and the industry hasn't been able to replenish them as the nation has been hit with a much colder-than-normal winter, says Harold Hommes, a market analyst at the Iowa Department of Agriculture. An estimated 350,000 homes and businesses in Iowa use propane.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin have requested an investigation
Grassley and Harkin asked the Federal Trade Commission last week to look into whether "the price increases are legitimate or manipulated in any way to the consumers' detriment."
Soaring propane prices are being blamed on market conditions -- an extremely cold December following a fall when a lot of corn had to be artificially dried with gas drying. January followed with intensely cold weather. Hommes says LP-gas companies have struggled to replenish diminished propane supplies. But, he adds, market forces don't fully explain the rapid price increase.
Iowa isn't the only state struggling with high propane prices. Hommes says 24 states, including Iowa, have relaxed hours that truck drivers can deliver propane. The U.S. Department of Transportation followed suit, suspending restrictions on propane haulers for several Midwest states, including Iowa.
Retail propane prices have continued to rise this week in Iowa
On January 27 the Iowa Department of Ag issued a press release stating: "Our report shows that retail propane prices have continued to rise relative to our special report of Thursday, January 23. However, since completing this report, indications are showing that wholesale propane prices may be beginning to fall and that would not yet be reflected in the attached numbers. The Department is considering doing a special propane price report again this week to determine if retail prices are starting to fall later in the week."