In February of this year, the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) successfully secured an extension through early March to the then current hours-of-service (HOS) waiver by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) for 42 states. Much of this extension hinged on high COVID-19 infection rates.
With this extension passed and the winter heating season quickly approaching, FMCSA is less willing to grant an emergency declaration to an industry that so often needs it during its annual busy season, which is typically affected by high customer demand in the midst of difficult or even extreme winter weather conditions.
To ensure the industry can continue to receive the emergency assistance it often needs, the NPGA has drafted a special exemption request that would “waive specific portions of the federal HOS regulations during the winter heating season,” according to the association’s website.
BPN spoke with Sarah Reboli, NPGA vice president of regulatory and industry affairs, about the special exemption and her role in advocating for NPGA members to FMCSA.
Can you give some background on the HOS waivers that NPGA has obtained in past years?
We exercise a great deal of coordination with state and regional association executives, members of the Propane Supply & Logistics Committee and experts in market dynamics as well as agricultural consumption.
Why are these waivers vital to the industry?
What’s vital to the industry is the ability to be nimble. Propane consumption has grown while infrastructure and resources have remained the same, leaving HOS as a tool to be nimble.
Why is it expected to become more difficult to obtain these waivers in upcoming winter seasons?
Waiving HOS regulations is part of an emergency declaration. From FMCSA’s perspective, emergency declarations are to be used occasionally, not routinely.
We’ve been successful in shifting FMCSA’s approach to proactively meet consumers’ needs, but it’s different from the original purpose of emergency declarations.
We need to use different tools to be nimble, and we need to build these tools with FMCSA.
What role did the pandemic play in recent waivers?
The early part of the year experienced high exposure and infection rates across all industries, including transportation and propane. We were successful in demonstrating the impact on our industry’s deliveries.
Over the last five years, the industry has requested HOS waivers more frequently. How is this special exemption request related & how can it help?
The special exemption is another tool among resources NPGA provides the industry — a way for operations to be more flexible in responding to the unpredictable weather conditions across the country. It doesn’t replace HOS waivers, but it could be a more useful, nimbler tool for operations to use instead of waiting on government action to authorize a broad HOS waiver.
What are NPGA’s goals in pursuing a special exemption for the industry?
Our members need another tool to be as nimble as our consumers’ needs across the country. Pursuing a special exemption to provide some relief from certain provisions of HOS requirements during peak demand periods could be a positive addition to the toolbox.
Describe the key provisions of the special exemption.
The special exemption request is still a work in progress, but essentially it would extend the daily driving and on-duty maximums by three hours for up to six consecutive days on the basis of a company’s determination that emergency conditions exist. It would be limited to use during peak demand season, October 1 through March 31.
Companies that choose to use the special exemption on a per-driver, per-event basis would have to keep records to prove the emergency conditions and which drivers used the exemption. If NPGA succeeds in obtaining the special exemption, we will provide webinars and guides on how to use the exemption, records to keep and examples of emergency conditions.
How does it differ from other ideas NPGA member companies discussed?
The infrastructure — pipelines, storage, rail, roadways — is so different in each region of the country. What could be helpful in the Rocky Mountains may not be in New England. Past discussions debated different provisions of HOS requirements to brainstorm ideas that could provide some nimbleness in each unique region of the United States.
Can you describe how companies will be able to use the special exemption & its scope?
If granted, a special exemption would be in place for five years. A company would have the authority — and recordkeeping burden — to determine that emergency conditions are present, as defined by the special exemption, to justify using it for a specific driver or drivers. It’s a case-by-case decision for each company.
For example, Sarah’s Propane has an operation in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s late October, and the NOAA weather forecast shows a cold front bringing the average temperatures to the low 50s for the next 8 to 10 days, which is about 15-20 degrees colder than average for the extended period.
Sarah’s Propane decides to use the special exemption for one transport driver the week before the cold front hits to stock up bulk storage. During the cold front, Sarah’s Propane uses the special exemption for two bobtail delivery drivers to keep up with consumer demand. After the cold front ends, Sarah’s Propane uses the special exemption for one transport driver to restock inventories.
The burden is on Sarah’s Propane to keep record of the weather conditions from NOAA and the drivers’ logs who used the special exemption. The advantage is that Sarah’s Propane doesn’t have to wait for the Tennessee governor or FMCSA to evaluate the weather before the company can start preparing for or respond to the demand.
Are there any potential obstacles in getting FMCSA to accept the exemption?
We must successfully advocate that the special exemption does not present a reduction to safety but provides a nimbleness to responsibly prepare for and respond to consumers’ needs.