The winter of 2013-2014 was a cold one. Before winter even began, farmers were using large amounts of propane to dry a wetter-than-normal corn harvest. As cold weather arrived in December, propane stocks were already lower than they had been the past 5 years.
Then through weeks of abnormally low temperatures, supplies continued to dwindle.
But because US propane production has grown about 40% in the past 4 years, we ended March with a sufficient cushion of propane.
The worries about propane last winter were mostly related to transportation and delivery. Snow and ice immobilized railroad cars carrying propane and passing through Chicago, while truck drivers stuck in ice and snow were limited by new “hours of service” regulations.
This year, we go into the winter heating season with supplies way above average (look back at that first chart). The challenge again will be deliveries.
The Cochin pipeline, which used to carry propane from Canada to North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, has now been reversed and carries the liquids from natural gas wells (called condensate) west to Alberta where the condensate is used to dilute thick bitumen from Canadian tar sands enough so that it can flow though pipelines. That means that rural communities in Iowa and Minnesota are going to have to get their propane this year from other sources. For the most part, that means relying on trucks from
Conway, Kansas. A big snowstorm near Omaha could interrupt those supplies. To my relatives in southwest Iowa, I say, “Keep your propane tanks full.”
City folk like me rely on natural gas for our winter heat. Last winter the amount of natural gas in storage at the beginning of November was absolutely normal. A cold December caused supplies to drop to the low end of a normal range, but continued cold weather in January, February and March resulted in a supply cushion at the end of March less than half of normal. We have recovered much of that deficit, and start the winter heating season with about 90% of the normal amount of natural gas in storage for this time of year.
Once again, the quick recovery is aided by increased US production. Natural gas produced in the US has increased by about 30% in the past 8 years.
The risk this winter, once again, is transportation, particularly in New England. Pipeline capacity from New York into New England is limited, and last winter the gas companies had to choose between supplying gas to power plants or the rest of their customers. The power plants only got limited supplies of gas and had to turn to old oil burning generators. The oil is more expensive than gas, driving up winter electric rates, especially in Massachusetts.
This year, Vermont’s Yankee Nuclear Power Plant is scheduled to be shut down and decommissioned. That leaves the region even more reliant on natural gas burning power plants. A new pipeline is proposed, but that pipeline is facing stiff opposition, and even if approved, won’t be complete until November 2018. http://www.nofrackedgasinmass.org/the-proposed-pipeline/
At least until then, New Englanders should hope for warmer than normal winters.