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What’s up with emergency declarations for home heating fuel?

States, federal government extended time truckers could be on the road

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Kiva Energy driver Brandon Pace prepares for truck inspection at Seagull Diesel Repair in Salt Lake City.

Kiva Energy driver Brandon Pace prepares for his end of delivery inspection at Seagull Diesel Repair Inc. in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Kiva, one of the largest wholesale distributors in the West, has not reported any delivery issues, although come companies have.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Emergency orders this winter have been flying across the desks of the nation’s governors, including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who issued a declaration in mid-December that soon after was followed by a sweeping order by the Federal Motor Carrier Association affecting hours of service for truckers.

The directives address the movement of heating fuel for homes and businesses that includes propane, natural gas and heating oil, extending the time by three hours those truckers can spend on the road without being in violation of federal regulations.

Cox’s emergency declaration lapsed after 30 days, as did many governors’ orders and the federal government’s.

With a couple months left in the season where storms could affect multiple parts of the country, it remains to be seen if the administration will again have to address the movement of heating fuel, which has been compromised by a hellacious winter that has clobbered the nation from the West Coast to the East.

Most of Utah’s watershed basins, for example, are close to twice the annual average snowpack, while many have exceeded that, especially in southern and central Utah, according to the Utah Snow Survey.

One of the big issues nationwide has been the timely delivery of propane or other heating fuels. While troubling propane “shortages” have made it into the news, that’s not the case.

The United States is the leading global exporter of propane, also known as liquified natural gas, and the domestic stock on hand is equal to what is exported.

Tom Clark, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Propane Association, which covers the West, said the orders were vital during the hard-hitting storms that pummeled much of the nation in December, especially over the holidays, to get heating fuel to the market because of their vital role in health and public safety.

“What it really allows the driver to be able to do is break his day up without getting penalized. So if he wants to get an early start before a storm starts or if he wants to get a later start after the snowplows, they can do that without getting penalized for being outside of their allotted hours.”

Drivers get docked for their time behind the wheel, even if it happens while waiting in line for pick up or delivery — and that can sometimes take hours.

“Even though you might have been sitting in line waiting to get some type of heating product and you’re not tired, there’s a storm coming in, and you need to be able to drive outside of those federal limits that have been put into place for over-the-road, long-haul truckers,” he said. “This puts regional and local deliveries in a jam because we’re trying to follow a federal rule that doesn’t always fit the local environment.”

The “static” federal rules absent a temporary executive order are another factor in the country’s supply chain issue for consumer products that include automobiles, food, baby formula, fuel and prescription medications.

“They can’t predict weather and supply chain issues that go deep into the whole energy mix of natural gas and crude oil,” Clark added. “So it’s a very complex situation. The short term solution was obviously for some hours of service relief.”

Those hours of relief do not impact the required time for rest and can be broken up, offering greater flexibility for drivers, he added.

Delivery issues with heating fuel and other goods are a periodic problem that have cropped up for years.

Clark said what needs to happen is a fix at the federal level because the nationwide rules are not a “one-size-fits-all” solution to what is often a regional, unpredictable problem.

He said the association has an application to the federal authorities for a permanent change to have the flexibility to extend hours of service by three hours, but it is a wait-and-see game.

“It’s in the process right now and it hasn’t been denied yet, and it could be a couple more months or longer before they are out to approving it or denying it, but that would help,” Clark said.