Following a Canadian natural gas pipeline rupture that caused Xcel Energy to tap its local reserve supply, emergency officials revisited disaster plans for dealing with potential heating shortages.
The Jan. 25 natural gas transportation problem did not result in an actual shortage — though customers voluntarily were asked to curb their usage as utility companies rerouted fuel around the broken pipeline, but local governments were ready to enact measures to deal with a communitywide problem.
“We had started to activate the disaster management planning process when this challenge presented itself,” said Dale Peters, risk manager for the city of Eau Claire.
But between Xcel requesting about 46,000 Chippewa Valley customers to turn down their thermostats to 60 degrees and other precautions made by the utility, emergency officials decided that residents were not in danger of losing heat, and establishing shelters was unnecessary.
“It never reached the point where we were going to do that,” said Tom Hurley, Eau Claire County emergency management coordinator.
Xcel customers were asked only to cut back on their natural gas usage for about a day in late January as the utility dealt with the transportation problem, but it prompted officials to review what the Eau Claire area would do if it faced a serious shortage of heating fuel.
Eau Claire City Council President Kerry Kincaid asked that scenario be discussed at a Feb. 12 disaster training seminar that had been scheduled more than a year ago.
Councilman Dave Duax, who attended the seminar with other city, county, school district and nearby town officials, said local emergency plans don’t specifically address the potential for a heating fuel shortage during winter.
“That’s one we need to explore,” Duax said. “We don’t have anything specific down on that.”
Local “all-hazards” plans address some specific disasters, including
floods, tornadoes, winter storms and chemical spills, Peters said, but also have general provisions that cover other potential problems that would apply to a heating fuel shortage.
Energy interruptions are one scenario included in the plans, he said, though it is primarily thought of as downed electrical lines from a storm.
“Electric is usually the one we think about the most and plan for,” Peters said, adding that many of the same precautions would work for a natural gas shortage.
Provisions for setting up shelters through the American Red Cross are commonly thought of for disasters like floods, fires and tornadoes, but Hurley said they also would apply to heating shortages.
“Our sheltering plan is ready to go immediately,” he said. “It’s a plan we can put into action very quickly.”
There are 62 public gathering places — including schools, churches and community centers — in the county designated as shelters during emergencies, Hurley said.
Though some internal discussions followed the pipeline problem, Hurley said, there was no need to change the county’s existing emergency plans.
But Peters said the city government might consider some changes to its disaster precautions.
“We’ve also taken it as an opportunity to evaluate some deficiencies in our infrastructure we might improve in the future,” Peters said.
That could include adding emergency backup heating sources at more city fire stations and in parts of the city’s water distribution system that currently depend on natural gas alone, he said.
While City Hall runs exclusively on natural gas heat, Peters said, there are plans in place that would allow the building to be shut down during a fuel shortage. The city would then run its basic services from a remote site — UW-Eau Claire and the county courthouse both have backup heating sources — via an established computer network.
Both Peters and Hurley complimented Xcel for the communication and contingency plans put in place during January’s pipeline problem.
While people who use propane to heat their homes are dealing with an actual shortage, Xcel spokesman Brian Elwood said there is plenty of natural gas, and the Jan. 25 incident was considered a “transportation problem” with Viking Gas Transmission’s pipeline in Manitoba.
It still caused Xcel to employ its seldom-used contingency plans during the pipeline problem.
“This is the first time in quite awhile, at least in the Eau Claire area,” said Jim Flanagan, Xcel’s senior natural gas engineer for Wisconsin and Michigan.
For the Jan. 25 incident, large Xcel customers including Eau Claire schools and UW-Eau Claire agreed to switch to their backup heat sources. But, also, the company asked industrial customers who are guaranteed ample natural gas supplies if they would voluntarily curtail their consumption.
“We did get a lot of companies volunteering to slow down their manufacturing processes, just so they were using less gas,” Flanagan said.
Backup tank tapped
Xcel did tap its giant backup natural gas tank in Eau Claire that’s cooled to 250 degrees below zero, allowing it to take up 600 times less room as a liquid, instead of its natural gaseous form.
“We can store seven days’ supply here in Eau Claire,” Flanagan said.
The reserve tank stores liquid natural gas from fall through spring, he said, and it had been occasionally tapped earlier this season when the price of natural gas on the commodities market spiked.
While the main pipeline serving our area broke, the company spent that weekend working with neighboring utilities as far away as Michigan to reroute natural gas and keep the supply flowing to our area.
“It’s a whole balancing act on allotments on the pipeline,” Flanagan said.
Natural gas is near historic levels in the U.S., Elwood said, making an overall shortage doubtful. The U.S. currently is the second largest natural gas producer in the world, Flanagan said, but it is projected to be No. 1 in five years.
“There probably wouldn’t be shortage to certain area, except maybe to a very local level,” he said.
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