Lawmaker calls for propane price investigation

A state lawmaker wants the attorney general to investigate whether price-gouging is impacting propane prices.

A state senator told KRCG 13 Friday he is calling on the attorney general to investigate a recent spike in propane prices.

Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, said he has asked Attorney General Chris Koster to determine whether major propane suppliers are price-gouging retailers and consumers. He said market forces like exports and domestic demand do not explain current price levels.

"We haven't even got through winter yet, so we're already running out of propane or there's a shortage of it? You know, without telling anybody that this was gonna happen? I don't think so," he said.

According to the Energy Information Administration, propane nationwide averaged $2.96 per gallon on Jan. 20, the last date for which data are available. That's 10 cents higher than the week before and 68 cents higher than it was a year ago. Steve Ahrens, the executive director of the Missouri Propane Gas Association, told KRCG 13 the supply of propane is tight for several reasons. First, the U.S. has been exporting propane vigorously, which helped bring down the trade deficit. Second, demand from grain farmers who needed propane to power grain dryers hit record levels during the fall of 2013. Finally, cold temperatures set in early and demand has been steady ever since. Still, Ahrens said these factors are not enough to explain current price levels and he would not be surprised if there was some price-gouging going on.

"Even if it is technically legal, it would be unconscionable," he said.

The propane shortage is severe enough that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared an emergency on Jan. 10. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley followed suit Thursday night. Ahrens said his organization is calling on Koster to join with the National Association of Attorneys General to investigate price-gouging nationwide.

In the meantime, Missourians are improvising to keep their propane use low. Mandy Kliethermes told KRCG 13 her family bought some electric heaters just before winter set in. She said her family usually fills up its propane tank in early November and needs a refill by mid-January, but her family has used the heaters heavily enough that its propane tank is about 40 percent full. She said the heaters have cost her family about $100 so far and will have paid for themselves in propane savings by the end of the season. Dawn Magers Clabaugh wrote on KRCG 13's Facebook page that she, too, was using space heaters.

"I feel blessed to have a roof over my head and warm things to bundle in," she wrote.

Parson said many Missourians have no other source of heat if they cannot afford propane. He said Koster's office told him it would discuss the issue on Monday, but he felt this was waiting too long.

"Somebody's gonna run out of propane today, tonight, Saturday, Sunday," he said. "And when you have single-digit temperatures out there and wind chills of 10 or 20 below, there's gonna be people that can't buy this and they have no other choices."

Koster's office told KRCG 13 Friday it had received about 25 complaints about pricing so far and it had assigned investigators to all of them.