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Murphy: ‘North Dakota nice’ and the propane shortage

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Murphy: ‘North Dakota nice’ and the propane shortage
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

It is 3:33 in the morning and I am sitting at the table with my sweatshirt on and hood up, worried about some of my fellow North Dakotans staying warm for the next couple of months.

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We have hit a nationwide shortage of propane and prices are jumping exponentially. This is due to an unhappy confluence of events unprecedented in my seven decades, but a couple of the exacerbating circumstances happen often — the drying of our corn crop used more propane than usual and the cold weather came and stayed in North Dakota with a vengeance.

What is rarer is that the cold extended farther into the U.S. than usual and is not letting go while, at the same time, we produced so much propane due to fracking oil shale formations that our prices dropped enough to make exporting propane profitable. We dropped our 5 percent quota on exporting propane this past year and current estimates have us exporting approximately 30 percent of our production. Put them all together and we have prices that, in a few weeks, have roughly quadrupled. I expect them to continue to climb.

How to deal with this problem? Common sense will dictate that we users of propane will turn thermostats down at home, schools, businesses and churches. Mine is now at 65 degrees and my wife just looked at me when I proposed further tweaks down the dial.

We know about banking snow and insulation where we live, about closing off unessential rooms, but these and other measures may not be enough to get us through these next few months. We are going to have to use “North Dakota nice.”

That means taking a deep breath when we pay or go into debt to heat our spaces. It means not shooting the messenger when he comes to put some propane in your tank, not ranting at the manager who may not have found your driver some to put in the tank. It means looking out for your neighbors, especially the elderly and poorer folks with children. If we run out, we may have to temporarily consider taking people into our homes as we did that April when the big blizzard hit, the power went out for a week and Grand Forks was evacuated. Now my tank is half-full and my small woodstove needs fuel as well.

“North Dakota nice” evolved here because our savage weather causes us to depend on one another from time to time. Our sparse population also contributes to this behavior; it is hard to live rudely with each other when we are the only people we see day after day.

If you want to blame someone for this shortage, try Mother Nature. This is a very short-lived situation, but it is upon us and many who do not count on propane to heat may not know about it.

Today, I call upon our governors and Congress to ask President Barack Obama to consider temporarily suspending exports by executive order if indeed that surplus can instead be efficiently distributed into the network for the next month or two. For 22 states, the U.S. Department of Transportation has already suspended time limitations propane truck drivers can stay on the road. Tennessee has schools that are closing because residences are a priority, Indiana reports that some customers are hostile. Hoosiers, don’t ya know.

For the curious, the North Dakota Pipeline Authority informed me that a rough estimate of the cost of a natural gas pipeline is about $75,000 per inch per mile. That means, for instance, that a four-inch pipe costs about $300,000 per mile. That is one of the major reasons small towns not near our larger cities remain unserved by natural gas pipelines. The cost/benefit analysis is not adequate at this time, though there have been requests for natural gas in and since the 1930s.

In North Dakota it is doubly frustrating because we are flaring enormous amounts of natural gas — of which propane is a byproduct — because we permit drilling before the capacity to contain it is built.

We are in the dead of winter and the forecast is not good. Patiently help each other get through this, please. In a few hours, I am going out to try and start my chainsaw.

Murphy is a Democrat from Portland in the North Dakota Senate and represents District 20. Email him at pmmurphy@nd.gov.

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