Massive Gas Outage Threatens Millions Of Americans’ Energy Supplies Amid Arctic Storm

Emergency shutdown at a natural gas storage facility in Washington state threatens mass blackouts.
In this Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, photo the Space Needle is seen in view of still standing but now defunct stacks at the Nucor Steel plant in Seattle.
In this Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, photo the Space Needle is seen in view of still standing but now defunct stacks at the Nucor Steel plant in Seattle.
via Associated Press

A massive storage facility in Washington state serving the natural gas network that provides electricity and heating fuel to millions of Americans from the Pacific Northwest south to New Mexico went down Saturday, HuffPost has learned.

The Jackson Prairie Underground Natural Gas Storage Facility in Lewis County, roughly two hours south of Seattle, suffered a complete outage, triggering an emergency on the 1,500-mile Northwest Pipeline that ships gas to power plants and heating networks across a region currently struck by arctic weather.

The storage facility provided enough gas to power upward of 6 million homes if it was all used to generate electricity. The gas network also supplies heating furnaces as cities like Seattle freeze in the coldest temperatures in the city in 14 years.

An emergency alert sent out across the gas network Saturday afternoon, a copy of which was posted on the social media website X, formerly known as Twitter, by an industry worker. The notice warned that the pressure in the pipeline connecting Washington and Oregon was dropping “at a rapid rate.”

The Northwest Pipeline’s operator requested “all customers take IMMEDIATE action to reduce” demand for electricity and heat.

The city of Ellensburg in mountainous central Washington issued a statement Saturday urging residents to conserve natural gas.

Gusty winds had already caused scattered power outages across Oregon as the winter storm sprayed the region with snow.

The utility that co-owns and operates the gas storage facility, Puget Sound Energy, said the plant went offline at 2 p.m. and “has steadily been coming back on since then.” The firm did not provide an estimate of when the facility would be fully restored.

“Puget Sound Energy is asking customers to conserve natural gas and electricity use through the evening hours,” a spokesperson for the company told HuffPost by email. “Due to the extreme cold temperatures facing our area, regional utilities are experiencing higher energy use than forecasted, and we need to reduce strain on the grid.”

The company didn’t say what caused the shutdown. But the watchdog Union of Concerned Scientists released a report last month showing an uptick in gas infrastructure breaking down during cold weather when the fuel is most needed.

The latest episode comes just two years after a winter storm left hundreds of Texans dead as gas pipelines froze and power plants failed, underscoring how the United States’ aging energy distribution networks are heaving under increased demand and extreme weather from climate change.

Federal regulators approved an expansion of the Pacific Northwest’s gas network in October. But the investments needed to prop up the fossil fuel system are facing increased scrutiny from those who say the money should be spent on new, zero-carbon energy infrastructure like solar panels and batteries.

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