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Bill Could Increase Propane Buying Options

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to fast-track a bill that they say could help Mainers who use propane to heat their homes get through the next cold snap or a fuel shortage. The emergency proposal could potentially hit a roadblock over concerns that it could put homeowners on the hook if there’s an accident.

The recent cold snap left many Mainers shivering in their homes, as heating fuel companies struggled to keep up with their desperate calls for a propane refill.

An emergency bill sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Bill Diamond attempts to fix this problem– at least for propane customers.

“People are really scared and I think we have to try something,” Diamond said.

Customers typically rent propane tanks. In most situations, only the propane company that leases the tank can legally fill it. That means a homeowner can’t order propane from another company if the one they lease the tank from runs out or is experiencing a delay.

Diamond told lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee that his bill would end that prohibition when the governor declares a heating-fuel related emergency – as Gov. Paul LePage recently did.

Diamond said that while the cold snap is over, the concern about propane shortages is not.

Roughly half of Maine’s propane comes into Auburn from Canada. Recently there was an accident on the rail bridge spanning the Saint Lawrence River that could squeeze off the supply.

“So we have a legitimate, severe shortage right now and it’s probably going to get a little worse over the next few days for just something that was an accident,” Diamond said.

Supporters say the bill is a common sense proposal that could help some Mainers during the shortage. Lawmakers in New York apparently agree – they’re fast-tracking a similar proposal.

But others aren’t so sure.

“When propane tanks go, they go boom,” said Charlie Solton, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of the Maine Association of Insurance Companies, which opposes the bill.

Solton told lawmakers that the proposal could shifts liability from the fuel company that owns the propane tank to the homeowner, who may be forced to sue if there’s an explosion or an accident.

Solton brandished a copy of a white paper commissioned by the National Propane Gas Association to make his point. It says container laws like Maine’s are common throughout the country because fuel companies are liable for their tanks, and therefore, have an incentive to take care of them.

Richard Thompson with the Maine Trial Lawyers Association agreed. Thompson wasn’t persuaded by the argument that the liability problem could be alleviated by a provision in the bill that allows fuel companies to fill another’s tank only if they have a specific agreement with the other fuel company.

“It’s a bad idea," Thompson said. "You’re putting the homeowner in a bad position and you’re creating kind of a fantasy world of immunities.”

Several lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee were also skeptical. Rather than immediately approve the bill and send it to the full legislature, the committee decided to hold another work session to see if the proposal can be salvaged.

This story was originally published Jan. 18, 2018 at 5:07 p.m. ET.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.