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5:23 am
Wed January 22, 2014

Punishing Winter Temperatures Drain Propane Supplies

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 8:12 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And this latest winter storm and those freezing temperatures are putting a strain on already low supplies of propane in the Northeast and Midwest. Millions of Americans use the liquefied gas to heat their homes. And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, they're paying more and getting less this winter season, which started early, thanks to the extreme cold of the polar vortex.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: As temperatures plummeted this winter, so did supply of propane. But the problem was more than just that winter storm. It was more of a perfect storm that left inventories depleted.

ROY WILLIS: Well, they had a double whammy.

SMITH: Roy Willis, head of the Propane Education and Research Council, says suppliers started out this season already in a pinch, after farmers - who use propane to dry crops - had an especially wet harvest and used five times their usual amount.

WILLIS: The increase in consumption represented about 15, 20 percent in total when you look at crop drying and the current winter heating demand over what we've experienced over the last decades.

SMITH: And complicating the picture even more, the same brutal weather that's got demand for propane extremely high is also making delivering propane extremely tough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

SMITH: In South Central Indiana, where wind chills were below zero yesterday, Dennis Clark was navigating messy rural roads to deliver the relatively little bit of propane he had.

DENNIS CLARK: Around 8,000 gallons right now. Usually I keep, you know, around 25,000.

SMITH: Clark has owned his propane business more than 30 years, and can't remember things ever being so tight.

CLARK: This propane shortage is just like it was in the gas and fuel shortages back in the '70s, you know.

SMITH: Prices have almost doubled from $1.79 a gallon last year to 2.99 today. And Clark says some of his customers are looking at other ways to heat their homes.

CLARK: Some of them get mad. I've even had a couple that quit. That's it.

SMITH: Many states have declared states of emergency, which allows propane delivery truck drivers to work longer hours.

They're also calls for emergency federal assistance for the millions of low income residents - especially those in rural areas beyond the reach of utilities, who depend on propane.

Jeff Peetrash, with the National Propane Gas Association, says meantime, some foreign suppliers are jumping into the mix.

For the first time in four or five years, tanker ships have been coming in to New England bringing in foreign propane to try to meet the demand there.

But Peetrash says that's not likely to bring consumers any price relief, since the imported propane is more expensive. And he says, demand will likely continue to outpace supply.

I think the situation will be challenging for the industry for the balance of this winter to meet consumer needs.

How challenging, he says, depends on the weather.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

In the western United States, it's unseasonably hot and dry. Monday August program, we learned that California is experiencing its worst drought in recorded history. The extreme conditions are affecting farms, they affect water reservoirs, they increase the threat of wildfires. And then, there's the air quality.

NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

Standing up here at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook in Culver City, California, you can usually see most of Los Angeles. You can see downtown LA, the Hollywood Hills, even the ocean, all the way to the west. Today though - and for the last couple of days - they've all been shrouded in a haze of gray.

Telvin McMillin just hiked up to the top of the hill and he's looking over towards the ocean.

You can actually see the line of the smog and it's really disgusting.

California's weird winter weather is having a big effect on air quality here. San Francisco has been socked in smog. Parts of the Central Valley have been on high alert, with fine particle counts that are more than three times the federal standard. And it's not just noticeable in the air.

Their throat is irritating them, and their chest is irritating them and patients who have never had asthma are complaining of cough and shortness of breath.

Dr. Alan Khadavi is an allergist in LA. He says he's been seeing far more patients than he normally does this time of year. The reason? California's long running drought. 2013 was the driest year on record in California and 2014 hasn't been any better.

Anthony Wexler is the director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC, Davis. He says that drought can affect air quality in a lot of ways.

One, of course, is just dust.

It gets blown into the air off of the parched landscape.

Yet another one are wildfires.

Which Angelinos experienced just last week, when a fire engulfed nearly 2,000 acres like it was late August. It filled the air with smoke.

Another way is that when weather fronts come through, they kind of blow all of the air pollution out and we get a fresh start.

And that's the key. Without a significant weather event - rain or wind - air just sits stagnant, collecting more and more pollution - which is bad news for West Coasters. Forecasters aren't predicting any rainstorms or significant weather events through the end of the month.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.

NPR News.

And while Californians worry about air quality, West Virginians worry about water quality, again.

Two weeks ago, a chemical spill into the Elk River left 300,000 residents with contaminated water supply. The water was tainted with and MCMH, a chemical used to wash coal.

That pollutant was cleared from the river and tap water declared safe to drink. But these reports of clean water may be exaggerated.

A different chemical called PPH also leaked from the tank. Officials are just now learning about the PPH and so they never tested for its presence in the local water supply.

The water company is now testing for PPH. Although, authorities contend the chemical has low toxicity.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

NPR's business news begins with a Chicago farewell.

Sears announced its closing its flagship store in downtown Chicago as part of an ongoing effort to cut expenses. It was once the largest retailer in Chicago. In fact, it was the namesake for the Sears Tower, the country's second tallest building.

One executive said that ever since it moved from the Sears Tower - which is now the Willis Tower - the downtown Chicago Sears has lost millions of dollars.

Sears joins other retailers announcing closures - J.C. Penney said, last week, it's closing 33 stores, Macy's is closing five.

Now despite the news of brick-and-mortar retail closures, the International Monetary Fund says U.S. and global economies are strengthening. In an update of its World Economic Outlook, the IMF boosted its forecast for global growth slightly for the first time in a couple of years.

NPR's John Ydstie reports.

The IMF says the world recovery is strengthening and that economic activity is likely to expand 3.7 percent in 2014. Advanced economies are leading the way. The IMF says it now expects the U.S. economy to grow 2.8 percent this year.

Olivier Blanchard, the IMF's top economist, says even Europe is healing.

Even there things are better. We'll predicting positive growth in all the Eurozone members.

It's been years since that's happened. But the IMF says there are still dangers in Europe, including a 10 to 20 percent chance of damaging deflation which could curb consumer demand and increase debt burdens.

Japan, which has struggled against deflation in the past couple decades, is growing again, helped by big government stimulus. The IMF boosted its estimate for growth in Japan's by nearly half a percent to 1.7 percent. The IMF says the world's second largest economy, China, will grow seven-and-a-half percent in 2014, faster than it had predicted in its original estimate. But it says China faces a difficult balancing act containing risks in its financial sector.

While advanced economies are expected to expand faster, major emerging markets like Russia and Brazil had their growth forecasts downgraded.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

Over the past week or so, most of the country's banks have reported their profits for the last quarter of 2013. The numbers, mostly, have better than most analysts expected. After a rough few years, most big financial institutions are faring pretty well. But there's some debate about how sustainable the numbers really are.

NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

The American banking sector may have survived the subprime mortgage crisis and the long slow recovery that followed it. But banking consultant Bert Ely says the economic environment is still a challenging one for many banks.

While we are experiencing economic recovery, it is not a robust recovery and so loan growth in many areas is not as strong as many would like.

The major banks have managed to survive and even prosper in part by diversifying their revenue streams. They may have taken a big hit during the financial crisis but big banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America were able to make a lot of money more recently by trading bonds and other assets. Now, with the passage of new regulations like the Volcker rule, and the rise in interest rates, a lot of banks are cutting back on trading.

Daniel Marchon is an analyst at Raymond James and Associates.

they saw that this was coming down, you know, at that point years to come, but they knew get out now, and that then when it's time for the final rules to be written, it won't be as much of a shock for our country and our businesses.

In recent years, a lot of banks have been able to increase their profits by raising customer fees and closing branches. Bert Ely says banks also beefed up their profits in another way. They had set aside a lot of money to cover bad subprime loans, but Ely says as the economy improved, they've able to take that money out and add it to their balance sheets.

Problem with that is it's not sustainable. It doesn't last forever. Eventually, the piggy bank is empty.

Ely says banks have been making profits through one-time-only measures that can't be repeated forever. The question now is how much more toothpaste can be squeezed out of the tube.

Bank analyst Richard Bove is pretty optimistic. Bove believes the last quarter of 2013 was a sort of turning point for the banks. He says the economy has finally improved enough that banks are beginning to make real money again.

When we get to 2014, there's every evidence that we will be switching from, you know, we'll say this questionable source of earnings to a more solid source of earnings.

Bove says rising interest rates have dealt a big blow to the home refinancing business, which was a big source of profits for banks. But other categories of lending, including autos and mortgages and commercial loans, are showing signs of life again.

The lending outlook looks really good for 2014, and it's basically because we're seeing an improvement in the economy which carries through to banking.

Still, the U.S. economy remains far from robust and the banking sector continues to face headwinds. New regulations like the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul have, at least for now, reined in the ways that big banks do business.

The last round of earnings reports shows that banks have managed to keep earning money, but they sometimes had to resort to unconventional measures to do so.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

And our last word in business is: Beating the odds.

Quicken Loans says it will pay $1 billion if you do.

The Detroit-based finance wants your attention if you're one of the people who filled out an NCAA Tournament bracket. You can now get a $1 billion prize if you correctly pick every single game.

The company has offered all sorts of details about how it will pay this price, and it says Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is backing the offer.

Well, let's just think about that for a minute. Warren Buffett is not known for blowing billion-dollar bets.

Turned out the odds of correctly picking every single NCAA Tournament game are more than nine quintillion to one. Odds are pretty good that Quicken Loans will get all the attention for its promotion for free.

In unrelated news, MORNING EDITION is offering $1 trillion to the first person who danced Gangnam Style on Jupiter.

We may also give a price to the first person who is able who counts to nine quintillion.

That's the business news on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.