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Natural gas pipeline explosion spotlights need for preparations in case of widespread heating outages

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By Archie Ingersoll

Forum News Service

FARGO – A Canadian pipeline explosion that created a shortage of natural gas and prompted calls to curb usage over the weekend in the Fargo-Moorhead area has put a focus on the region’s preparations for a widespread outage of a heating source during a cold spell.

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The pipeline explosion south of Winnipeg led Xcel Energy to ask customers late Saturday night to reduce natural gas use by turning their thermostats to 60 degrees. At 11 a.m. Monday, the utility company told residents they could resume normal use.

For folks such as Sarah Sletten of Mayville, cutting back on heat was a minor inconvenience that involved warm clothes and extra blankets.

“Me and my two boys wore sweatshirts and socks at home,” Sletten said in an email. “We all three slept in my youngest son’s bedroom because it is always the warmest room in the house.”

Andrew Thostenson of West Fargo said he spent $120 on electric space heaters and survived the 60-degree mandate with ease.

“This incident really makes you wonder about the need for backups to backups to backups,” he wrote in an email.

Such backups were on the minds of emergency management officials who, before the supply of natural gas was restored Monday, were discussing the possibility of an outage that would have left thousands of residents without heat, said Greg Wilz, North Dakota’s director of homeland security.

Wilz said state and local agencies have evacuation plans that would bring residents to heated shelters. He said that when dealing with hospitals and nursing homes, critical questions come into play.

“Do they have backup power?” he said. “Do they have a backup heating system?”

If not, patients would have to be moved. To do that in blizzard conditions like those over the weekend would involve snowplows and police escorts, Wilz said.

Sanford Health’s two hospitals in Fargo are both heated by natural gas, but they have emergency backup systems fueled by heating oil, said company spokeswoman Emily Bormann.

At the request of Xcel, the hospitals switched to heating oil on Saturday afternoon. “If you are not part of the facilities team, you would not have even noticed,” she said of the switch.

No one hurt in blast

The pipeline blast happened early Saturday on one of three TransCanada Corp. lines that supply natural gas to 100,000 Xcel customers in eastern North Dakota, northwest Minnesota and western Wisconsin, as well as Great Plains Natural Gas customers in Crookston, Vergas, Pelican Rapids, Fergus Falls and Breckenridge, Minn., and Wahpeton, N.D.

The explosion, which remains under investigation, sent flames hundreds of feet into the air, but no one was hurt. Two nearby pipelines were taken out of service as a precaution and to assess damage.

Most of the natural gas that Fargo uses comes through the TransCanada pipelines. Those lines carry gas to a pipeline owned by Viking Gas Transmission Co. that runs from the Manitoba-Minnesota border south through the Red River Valley to a point close to Fargo, where the line turns southeast and continues to Marshfield, Wis., said Curt Dallinger, Xcel’s director of gas resource planning. Phone messages left for TransCanada and Viking representatives were not returned Monday.

During the shortage, other utility companies in the Upper Midwest moved gas into Viking’s pipeline so Xcel could serve its customers. “That’s how they kept the pipeline alive,” Dallinger said.

With subzero temperatures, Xcel’s natural gas system was at peak use over the weekend, said Mark Nisbet, the utility’s principal manager in North Dakota.

“What made this so dramatic was how cold it was,” he said. “If this was the summertime, it probably wouldn’t have had much of an impact.”

Stabilizing temperature

Nisbet said Xcel asked customers to set their thermostats to 60 degrees because engineers decided that temperature would provide enough relief to the system to stabilize it.

“If the situation had gotten worse, there might have been a plea to go to a lower number,” he said.

Had things become worse than that, the company might have had to temporarily cut service to certain parts of the city, much like a rolling blackout, Nisbet said.

Along with institutions and homeowners, Xcel asked almost 600 commercial customers in North Dakota and Minnesota, as well as 250 in Wisconsin and Michigan, to use less natural gas. The businesses are part of the utility’s “Interruptible Gas Rates” program.

“They get attractive prices because of the amount of gas they use, but when we need help to make sure that we have enough gas, they’re asked to curtail their load,” Nisbet said, adding that these businesses may be asked to reduce gas use through Wednesday.

Those businesses included major agricultural firms like American Crystal Sugar Co., which uses natural gas to dry sugar beet pulp at some of its factories. Spokesman Jeff Schweitzer said most of Crystal’s operations are fueled by coal and that restrictions on the company’s gas use were lifted Monday.

The natural gas shortage raised questions among some politicians. On Monday, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., spoke with Xcel and TransCanada executives and pressed them on their backup plans in cases like this.

“We need to learn from what happened, and see if there are improvements to the contingency planning we should make to guarantee an adequate flow of natural gas,” Heitkamp said in a statement.

Readers can reach The Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734

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The Forum Communications News Service is the premier news wire service covering the Upper Midwest, stretching from the oilfields of western North Dakota to the plains of South Dakota and to the shores of eastern Minnesota. For more information about the services we offer or to discuss content subscriptions, please contact us.
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