FORT YATES, N.D. – A nationwide propane shortage is hitting an American Indian reservation that straddles the border of North and South Dakota particularly hard, causing tribal officials to warn that the thousands of low-income residents who live there are running out of ways to heat their ramshackle homes.
The Standing Rock Reservation is on the wind-swept Northern Plains, where there is little to block the icy gales that whip in from the northwest and create wind chills as low as 50 below. Many residents live in mobile homes, some with ill-fitting doors, others with boards tacked up where the windows should be, or deteriorating roofs that leak much-needed warmth.
The propane crisis escalated last week when Debbie Dogskin, 61, died while house-sitting for a friend in a rundown mobile home with an empty propane tank.
“We think she just fell asleep and died,” said her mother, Sara Dogskin.
Preliminary autopsy results released Friday did not identify a cause of death, but Sioux County Sheriff Frank Landeis said he believes Dogskin froze to death early Tuesday because it was as cold inside the home as out that morning: 1 degree below zero.
As the Dogskin family prepared for a memorial service, authorities investigated why there was no propane to heat the home. Her mother said Dogskin, who was known for helping others, likely felt a sense of responsibility to stay in the freezing home and keep watch over it for her friend.
Propane – a byproduct of natural gas processing and petroleum refining – has been in short supply in the U.S. since late last year after farmers burned up more than usual to dry out a late wet harvest. Compounding that, less propane has been arriving from Canada because of higher demand there, and the deadly cold winter in the U.S. has increased demand and driven up prices here.
A gallon of propane was about $3.90 per gallon in the U.S. last week, up about $1.59 from last year at the same time, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data released Wednesday. Ken Snider, who drives a propane truck for Cenex out of Selfridge, said the price on the reservation this winter peaked at $4.65 a gallon.
The shortage has been particularly problematic on the 3,600-square-mile reservation, which has no natural gas lines and where using electricity to heat homes can be too expensive for many impoverished families, according to Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II. As many as 5,000 homes on the reservation rely on propane.
Many reservation families are on fixed incomes and can no longer afford propane.
“As far as supply goes, we haven’t had any problems,” Snider said. “The normal person – how do you afford the price? I filled a guy’s 1,000-gallon tank, and $2,475 is what it cost him, and the tank wasn’t even empty.”
The tribe has opened six shelters across the reservation, and the Red Cross provided cots, blankets and food. The shelters have not been heavily used so far, in large part because the tribe has provided propane through a program that helps the needy pay to heat their homes. But that money is limited. Budget cuts mean the tribe received $1.5 million from the federal government this winter, down from $2.5 million last winter.