- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahoma propane dealers say customers are upset with the sharply rising price of the fuel, and the suppliers fear losing those customers to other forms of heating.

The price of the gas, used to heat homes during the winter, jumped from about $2 per gallon in early December to nearly $5 per gallon in late January. Industry officials said the increase was due to a combination of low supplies, increased demand due to the extremely cold winter and a wet harvest season when a large amount of the gas was used to dry corn crops.

“We finally get a cold winter, and there’s a propane shortage,” American Propane owner Herb Hampton in Oklahoma City told The Oklahoman (http://bit.ly/1o4Okbf ). “Now we are praying for 80 (degrees).”

In Oklahoma, an estimated 400,000 customers rely on propane for winter heating.

Hampton said he tries to explain to angry customers that the rising prices have been a mess for everybody and that his hands are tied.

Benchmark prices are set by large-volume dealers in Texas and Kansas, Hampton said. The cheapest supplies came out of Houston, so many smaller dealers were traveling there and waiting in 30-hour lines to stock up at the lowest price.

He sympathizes with his customers for their hardship.

“It’s extreme pressure on everyone because when that budget breaks, you just feel helpless,” Hampton said.

And he said that he’s barely breaking even.

Paul Laney, owner of Liberty Propane Co. near Tahlequah, said he’s had several customers let their tanks run dry and replace them with space heaters. He also said he expects to lose customers making a permanent switch to electric or wood-burning heating when winter ends.

“A lot of people are in a tremendous bind,” Laney said. “We are doing the best we can; we are delivering the smallest amount of propane that we can, which only allows us to break even. But we want to help our customers.”

In an effort to help low-income residents meet their heating bills, Gov. Mary Fallin on Jan. 31 issued an executive order instructing the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to give priority to helping families who use propane for heat.

The order instructs the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to expedite applications for both the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Energy Crisis Assistance Program. The federal programs help low-income families with heating costs in the winter, cooling costs in the summer and home insulation.

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com