A Nova Scotia propane distributor is warning customers to conserve their fuel usage and plan for alternate sources of heating and cooking because of a supply disruption caused by Indigenous rail blockades across Canada.
Propane is delivered to the Maritimes primarily by rail, so supply into the region has been delayed.
"We do not wish to cause alarm, rather, we wish to ensure that you are informed of the current situation," Wilsons Heating said in a note sent to customers Friday.
The company serves customers in the metro Halifax area, central and northern Nova Scotia. It's taking steps to stretch supply as long as possible by making smaller deliveries and prioritizing emergency deliveries to those whose sole source of heat is their propane furnace.
Wilsons urged customers to conserve their propane usage "if at all possible," and also suggested they contact their local MP if they "have further concerns about the blockades."
The blockades on the main CN Rail line are a show of solidarity for the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, whose hereditary chiefs oppose the construction of a 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline through northern British Columbia.
Andre Pratt is the co-owner of Studio East, a Halifax restaurant that gets its propane from Wilsons. His tanks were filled up about a week ago and he estimated his restaurant has a two-week supply on hand for heating and the kitchen.
"Now that I know about this propane situation, we're definitely going to have to keep a close eye on how much we use," he said.
In response to the shortage, Pratt said the restaurant will shut down equipment during quiet times.
"It's hard during the wintertime because it's so cold out," he said. "We've got to keep all the customers comfortable, but if we can find any way of slowing down the usage of propane, that's what we're gonna have to do."
In Sydney, N.S., Scotia Propane general manager Darrell Cormier said he's concerned about supply, but said the company is receiving product by truck and is not rationing customers.
Instead of trucking propane from its usual Moncton rail connection, the company has been travelling to Ontario, which is adding cost and time to delivery.
Greg McCamus, president of Superior Propane based in Ontario, said his company is rationing customers in Central and Eastern Canada, including Nova Scotia.
He said the company is making heating a priority for homes and hospitals, and in some cases is not filling commercial customer tanks up all the way.
McCamus said the rail blockades are seriously disrupting the propane supply, which comes from Sarnia, Ont.
"We have been supplementing with trucking and we've also been able to source some rail cars of propane from our U.S. operation," he said.
"We've been able to reallocate a little bit of supply because it's actually been warmer in Ontario, which has helped, but the problem is there's only a limited capacity for propane-hauling vehicles, and of course in this situation, they're all busy full time."
McCamus said customers are already feeling the pinch, with prices rising as the supply tightens.
"It's very difficult to get supply right now and the transportation is very expensive to replace," he said.
Hundreds of restaurants will be affected
Gordon Stewart, the executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, said hundreds of restaurants in the province use propane. He said "the shortage is already here" and restaurants are only getting partial fill-ups.
Stewart said the industry, which employs a total of 32,000 people in Nova Scotia, is particularly vulnerable.
"The problem with restaurants is they use a lot of propane," he said. "If you're on propane, you're probably running all your stoves, maybe refrigeration, maybe other things on propane, so the challenge will be being able to maintain running your restaurant on full hours or reduced hours, or maybe even closing at some point."
If the shortage continues, Stewart predicts prices will rise dramatically as propane is brought into the region by truck, which is more expensive than shipping by rail.
Premier Stephen McNeil said the provincial government is keeping an eye on the situation.
"We're looking at options in terms of how we get products into our province quickly, propane and others," he told reporters Friday.
"The solution is to have these blockades down and get the rail line moving."
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