Church tries to help reservation chilled by propane crisis

‘No matter what the groundhog says … we’ve still got a long run ahead of us’

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Feb 17, 2014
Debbie Dogskin, 61, was found dead Feb. 4 in this mobile home with an empty propane tank  in Fort Yates, North Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation A nationwide propane shortage has hit the Sioux reservation that straddles the Dakotas’ border particularly hard. A more than doubling of the fuel’s cost has crippled efforts to stay warm -- and alive -- through the harsh winter where most people rely on propane to heat their often ramshackle homes. Photo: Tom Stromme, Bismarck Tribune, Associated Press

Debbie Dogskin, 61, was found dead Feb. 4 in this mobile home with an empty propane tank in Fort Yates, North Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation. A nationwide propane shortage has hit the Sioux reservation that straddles the Dakotas’ border particularly hard. A more than doubling of the fuel’s cost has crippled efforts to stay warm — and alive — through the harsh winter where most people rely on propane to heat their often-ramshackle homes. Photo: Tom Stromme, Bismarck Tribune, Associated Press

[Episcopal News Service] Sometimes a person in need encounters the Episcopal Church’s ministry at the gas station.

The Rev. Canon John Floberg, canon missioner for the Episcopal Church community on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, was paying his bill on Feb. 12 at a gas station on the reservation when a young woman told him about having to replace her frozen, broken hot water heater. She said she had heard that the Episcopal churches might be able to help folks like her.

Floberg took her $370 receipt and found the money to reimburse her. The woman, he suspected, was working at a minimum-wage job so such an expense would have taken about a week of wages.

Winters are always hard in the Dakotas but this year’s brutal temperatures have been made worse by regional propane shortages and skyrocketing prices.

The two counties that Standing Rock encompasses, Sioux County in North Dakota and Corson County in South Dakota, have the seventh and ninth highest poverty rates, respectively, in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics reported here. Most reservation residents are Sioux Indians. Between 80 and 90 percent of the people on the reservation depend on propane. That’s about 5,000 homes whose residents are at some level of risk, according to Floberg.

Many reservation residents live in houses with ill-fitting doors, single-pane windows or boards where glass used to be and roof that leak heat. Keeping such homes warm is especially expensive. Inside of some homes “you can find frost in the corners of the room up on the ceiling,” he said.

On Standing Rock, two people have died in what Floberg said “I can pretty well say that are connected” to the propane crisis. Both deaths occurred in Fort Yates, North Dakota, the seat of the tribal government.

On Jan. 5, Gordon Tree Top Sr., 66, a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church where his sister is a vestry member, died when fire destroyed his house. Floberg said Tree Top was using a space heater to keep warm and it appears to have ignited the couch on which the man was found.

Then on Feb. 4 Debbie Dogskin, 61, was found dead in a mobile home with an empty propane tank. Preliminary autopsy results released Feb. 9 did not identify a cause of death, but Sioux County Sheriff Frank Landeis said he believes Dogskin froze to death because it was as cold inside the home as out that morning — 1 degree below zero, ABC News reported.

In such conditions, a 500-gallon tank of propane lasts perhaps a month. It takes 400 gallons to fill such a tank, leaving room for the gas to expand. When propane costs $5 a gallon, as it recently did, a 400-gallon fill cost $2,000. This past summer, when propane was selling for $1.58 a gallon on the reservation, the same fill would have cost $632, according to Floberg.

Propane, a byproduct of natural gas processing and petroleum refining, is used mostly by people who live in rural areas that do not have natural gas service. It is used for cooking, heating homes and water, and powering clothes driers and fireplaces.

Looking for ways to help
The Episcopal Church’s involvement with the Sioux in what is now North Dakota and South Dakota began in the mid- to late-1800s after the 1862 Dakota uprising in neighboring Minnesota that resulted in the U.S. government deporting them to reservations in South Dakota. Just after the Civil War, the federal government offered land to various Christian denominations in exchange for their complicity in its effort to force Indians to assimilate into the white settlers’ culture through the federal government’s reservations system.

The Episcopal Church helped to carry out that plan mainly east of the Missouri River. The 1871 General Convention created the Niobrara Missionary District, which included parts or all of what are now North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Today the church is present through a network of very small mission churches that are spread over vast expanses of land. It is uncommon for those missions to have electricity, water and indoor toilets, a situation that is also not uncommon for members’ homes.

Episcopal Relief & Development is partnering with the Dakota dioceses and their network of churches on Standing Rock to help them minister this winter in a number of ways, according to Floberg and Katie Mears, director of the organization’s U.S. Disaster Preparedness and Response program.

Floberg and the Rev. Robert Schwarz of St. James Episcopal Church in Mobridge, South Dakota in that diocese’s section of Standing Rock collaborated on the plan presented to the tribe, the dioceses and Episcopal Relief & Development.

First, the church will work with the tribal government to assist tribal members who can’t afford propane. Second, it will be able to help some of the “most vulnerable” reservation residents who are ineligible for tribal assistance, Mears said, and those who, like the woman at the gas station, have the added burden of cold weather-related property damage.

Because the impact of this crisis ripples out to other parts of people’s lives, the church will also work with food banks in both states to get shipments of food to distribute in local communities through the local congregations “because people have been making choices: food or propane,” Floberg said.

The church also plans teach reservation residents about alternative-fuel heating as well as teach winterization and energy conservation skills at four, free church suppers across the reservation. The tribe will give the meat for those meals, said Floberg, and the entire community will be invited.

Along these same lines, Floberg hopes to give $5,000 to a new effort called “Heating the Rez.” Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney who grew up on Standing Rock, is trying to organize 20 home pilot projects to receive multi-fuel stoves to reduce dependency on propane. According to Iron Eyes’ website, the effort has raised just more than $40,000 of the $50,000 needed. He is partnering with a number of organizations and plans to work with a Mandan, North Dakota, company that sells the stoves.

“The point of the fundraising wasn’t to buy more ridiculously priced propane,” Iron Eyes told the Bismarck Tribune.

Floberg said the church is eager to see the project begin as a way to demonstrate the need for more multi-fuel stoves, which he said will not totally replace propane-fueled furnaces but certainly reduce a home’s overall heating costs.

Arenson Oil and Propane delivery driver Don Bedford fills up an empty propane tank in Sandwich, Illinois January 29. Midwest propane inventories had rebounded somewhat but were still below the five-year average, a government report said Feb. 12. While propane prices have declined, consumers are still struggling to pay for their tank fills. Photo: Reuters/Jeff Haynes

Arenson Oil and Propane delivery driver Don Bedford fills up an empty propane tank in Sandwich, Illinois January 29. Midwest propane inventories had rebounded somewhat but were still below the five-year average, a government report said Feb. 12. While propane prices have declined, consumers are still struggling to pay for their tank fills. Photo: Reuters/Jeff Haynes

Other help is coming to the reservation. The federal Department of Health and Human Services released $439 million nationwide for low-income heating assistance. North Dakota will get $3.4 million in the latest allocation and South Dakota $2.8 million. Of that amount, $1.3 million is earmarked for tribes in the two states.

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple said Feb. 10 that he had directed the state’s Department of Human Services to assist Standing Rock in assessing their potential need for additional Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program money.

Tribal chair Dave Archambault told the Associated Press at the time that the money will be welcome but likely won’t be enough to bring Standing Rock’s program up to normal funding. The tribe’s LIHEAP program has only $1.5 million available this winter, down from $2.5 million last winter because of federal budget cuts.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux tribe is giving Standing Rock and two other Northern Plains tribes a total of $870,000 to help them purchase propane for tribal members. Standing Rock will receive $500,000 from the Minnesota tribe that operates several businesses, including two casinos and a golf course.

Floberg said the amount of money the church can commit to this work sometimes feels small compared to those efforts and “doesn’t feel like you are carrying the day,” but he knows making a difference in a few more families’ lives is better than not doing that. And, he said, the church wants to administer what it can give in the most efficient way possible “where we are working in partnership with the tribe who already has the infrastructure in place to be helping them out.”

And then there are the churches themselves where decisions based on heat bills also have to be made. For instance, at Church of the Cross in Selfridge, North Dakota, “we said we didn’t have enough money to keep that place heated for worship so we went to a house church format for the winter,” he said.

The St. Luke’s fellowship hall at Fort Yates is heated by a high-efficiency propane furnace but it has proved too expensive to keep going, so the congregation closed off the hall, keeping the temperature at 40 degrees. But, if the church needs to host a funeral and reception, it would take 18 “hard running hours” to heat it up, Floberg said.

The rest of the church building is heated with dual-heat furnaces that can run on either propane or electricity. That choice was made when propane cost 58 cents a gallon, he said, and electricity was more expensive. They chose the dual option “just in case” and now “that just in case has really come into play.”

Other than Wednesdays and Sunday, those furnaces are keeping the space heated to 50 degrees, according to Floberg. Raising the temperature to between 65 and 70 for three hours on Wednesdays for the soup kitchen has made that program “a lot more expensive to run,” he said.

By contrast, the newly built St. James in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, has geothermal heat and its combined monthly electricity and heating bill is $200 a month, perhaps $125 more a month outside of the heating season. The building is kept at 70 degrees day and night.

“I have never had the experience at any of our churches in all of the 20-plus years I have been out here of walking into a building and feeling immediately comfortable and warm,” Floberg said with a happy laugh.

The church has offered St. James as an emergency shelter if needed “but we haven’t had to employ in that way,” he said.

How did this crisis happen?
Current high prices, distribution bottlenecks and, in some cases, outright shortages are being blamed on a vortex of circumstances that began circling the country last fall.

The National Propane Gas Association has said the shortages began in part when abundant grain crops were harvested throughout the Upper Midwest almost simultaneously last fall. Ordinarily, the harvest progresses in stages through the region but in late 2013, the harvest happened at the same time over a wide area. What the association called “massive amounts” of propane were used to dry the large, wet crop prior to storage. That demand reduced propane inventories throughout the area.

At the same time, the Cochin pipeline, which provided 40% of the product used by Minnesota suppliers, was shut down for repairs. The shutdown forced those suppliers to go to other states for propane, pinching the market.

Just as the harvest demand settled out, massive snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures began to hit most of the county and demand for heating fuel soared. The average number of heating degree days (a calculation of the deviation in temperature from an average day from 65 degrees) this winter have been more than 10 percent higher than last season, according to the propane association. The group said the U.S. Department of Energy reported that cold weather led to record-high natural gas and propane storage withdrawals. These were the largest drawdowns in the 20-year history of the survey and the second time so far in 2014 the record has been broken.

Add to that the fact that in 2013 more than 20 percent of U.S. propane was exported, up from 5 percent in 2008, according to the association. Thus, while Jeff Petrash, the general counsel for the propane industry group, said propane production increased to an estimated 17.8 billion gallons in 2013, from 15.2 billion gallons in 2008, he acknowledged that an estimated 4.3 billion gallons of propane were exported last year, compared to 800 million gallons in 2008.

The Energy Information Administration said Feb. 5 that U.S. propane stocks totaled 30.8 million barrels, nearly 45 percent lower than a year ago, USA Today reported). And the EIA, the U.D. Department of Energy’s statistical arm, said Feb. 12 that Midwest propane inventories had rebounded somewhat but were still below the five-year average.

The propane industry group also blamed adequate propane storage locations in the Northeast, saying that had propane been stored there, it could have been moved to the areas of the country facing a crisis. However, it said, the industry had faced opposition in some areas to adding storage capacity, which is generally underground.

Yet, storing enough propane to weather all of these factors combined is not efficient. “You don’t design church for Easter Sunday,” Clifton Linton, a natural gas liquids specialist at the Oil Price Information Service told the New York Times. “Well, guess what happened this year? In the Midwest, it was a double Easter Sunday.”

Finally, the propane distribution system relies heavily on trains and trucks to get emergency supplies from pipeline terminals to states across the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast. However, the propane association said, rail cars and trucks that used to be in the distribution chain have been diverted to take away the huge amount of crude oil being on the Bakken shale formation. The Bakken boom has also caused what the association called “a dramatic change in energy flows across North American” to which the natural gas and petroleum products pipeline network has not yet adapted.

Ironically, the rush to pull oil out of the Bakken, 300 miles northwest of Fort Yates, means North Dakota has a glut of natural gas. The gas is released at the wellhead but lax gas-capture regulations now lead to 30 percent of the gas being burned off as waste.

In an effort to move propane to areas where it is needed, the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued emergency orders suspending the limits on the amount of time truck drivers can spend on the road for 10 Midwestern states and 12 Northeastern states. In many cases those orders mirrored actions taken by state governors.

On Feb. 12 Midwest retail residential prices for propane ranged from $2.99 a gallon (excluding tax) in Nebraska to $4.04 in Indiana. The price was $3.28 in North Dakota and $3.41 in South Dakota. That is down from this year’s high thus far of $4.57 in North Dakota and $4.12 in South Dakota on Jan. 27. In early February 2013, the per-gallon price for propane in the Midwest was $2.306, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Although North Dakota’s total energy consumption is among the lowest in the nation due to its small population, according to the Energy Information Administration,  the state’s high heating demand in winter means it ranks fourth in the country in per-capita consumption (measured in BTUs). South Dakota ranks eighth.

The Energy Information Administration data shows that North Dakotans use almost twice as much propane (867 gallons each year) as the U.S. national average (464 gallons per year). And, while propane in North Dakota cost less than the national average during the 2012-2013 winter, North Dakotan households $1,280 that years on propane for heating compared with $957 per U.S. households overall.

And Floberg has a warning.

“No matter what the groundhog says, there’s more than six weeks of winter left in the Dakotas,” he said. “We’re not out of this brutal heating season until at least the middle of March; so another month of sub-zero weather … and we’re not out of the snow until the middle of April in terms of the likelihood of snowstorms. We’ve still got a long run ahead of us.”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

Comments (4)

  1. Kathleen Murff Whiting says:

    This knowledge is agonizing. Gordon Tree Top, Sr. and Debbie Dogskin should never have lost their lives in their own homes, burning and freezing to death because they had no reasonable way to heat even one room. My heart breaks for them, for the pain and loneliness of those deaths. It is good that the various agencies are now working together to come up with different ways of heating, but I was shocked to read this: “It is uncommon for those missions to have electricity, water and indoor toilets, a situation that is also not uncommon for members’ homes.” Until the homes can be made safer, with heat in winter, could we not look immediately to a national effort to provide these most basic needs at the Episcopal churches using renewable energy, so that they could be offered as safe havens for their members and other neighbors when the weather is so horrendously dangerous?

  2. Robert C. Schwarz says:

    Just to clarify, I am the priest-in-charge of Standing Rock Episcopal Mission, SD. We live at St Elizabeth’s, Wakpala, SD. It’s true that I’m the rector of St James’, Mobridge, but that is not why we are here.

  3. Denise Huffman says:

    Not only does my heart break, but the very heart of Jesus breaks as well. I can’t get past the “excuses” that were made by the Propane Association. There are many problems and injustices in this world. Thank God for those that are standing in the gaps to help. And God have mercy on us all.

  4. I grew up in New Mexico, same problem, weather a “little” better. Indians and native Spanish citizens
    tend to get the “short end” of resources when it comes to money. Fortunately for the native Indians
    and Spanish who have oil or other needed resources they can sell them to the government. It does
    not solve the problem of discrimination but it can help.

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