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Fouts, Consumers Energy disagree on gas shutoff prospect in Warren

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Warren Mayor Jim Fouts

Warren — Mayor Jim Fouts says Warren was threatened overnight with a citywide gas shutoff in the midst of a statewide shortage.

Fouts says he was jolted awake by an urgent call in the early hours of Thursday that he says could have led to nightmarish conditions in his city of 135,000.

The caller, a member of the Warren police department who is the contact for Macomb County Emergency Management, told Fouts at 12:25 a.m. that the city of Warren could face a citywide gas shutoff at 7 a.m. as result of the explosion at a Consumers Energy facility in Armada Township a day earlier.

"There are complications with the (gas) line," Fouts recalled of the early morning conversation with police, "and possibility gas could be shut off to the city of Warren at 7 a.m."

"That was a wake-up call and sent me into emergency mode," Fouts said.

But officials with Consumers Energy say no one from the company threatened to shut down gas service in Warren, to Macomb County emergency officials or to any municipality.

"At no time, did we threaten to shut off gas to the City of Warren," Consumers spokeswoman Katelyn A. Carey said Thursday.

Fouts maintained on Thursday afternoon that gas was threatened, and he said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said as much in a call to him Thursday afternoon.

The Warren mayor said he received a call from the governor before 1:30 p.m. during which the governor offered her help.

"She agreed with me there was a threat that 800,000 people could lose their power in the state including the people in Warren," Fouts said.

The 800,000 include virtually all of Macomb County and some in north Oakland County, Fouts said of his conversation with Whitmer.

Responding to Fouts' statements, officials at Consumers said: "There was a threat to overall public safety within the state, but we did not specifically threaten to shut down the City of Warren."

On Thursday, Whitmer said her administration has been in close contact with Consumers Energy, one of the state’s two incumbent utilities, but told reporters that only the company can confirm how close it was to forced residential shutoffs.

“I will tell you that the actions of General Motors and FCA and Ford and the big industrial users of energy on the same grid not using it for the last 36 hours has been incredibly helpful,” she said. “It’s also why we asked residential users to voluntarily lower their thermostats. A lot of people played a role in making sure that the system was not overloaded and was able to be successful through the night.”

Procedurally, Consumers has the emergency authority to turn off supplies without state approval, Whitmer said.

“That’s a call they make,” she said. “But if that call was made, it would be communicated to me, and we would mobilize all of the departments and agencies from the state and local level to make sure that people are taken care of.”

Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe said the utility can control the flow of gas by region and to local communities but is unable to remotely control thermostats in homes.

Fouts said after the call from police he took to Facebook, posting in the middle of the night, to alert residents of the possibility and sound the alarm on the need to reduce energy.

"Awoken at about 12:30 AM to an official call that there is a complete threatened shut off of all gas power to the city of Warren today due to a fire at a Consumers facility," Fouts wrote.

The crisis was averted after General Motors Co. halted operations at 13 manufacturing facilities and three corporate locations. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles canceled first- and second-shift production at Warren Truck and Sterling Heights Assembly Plants.

"They have arranged to have GM and Chrysler shut down for a few days to avoid that dire situation. At least at this time. There was possibility that all power would be shut off at 7 AM this morning. I'm thankful that will not happen at this time now," the post said. "But it is wake up call of how critical our energy needs are and how we could be completely without power with only a short notice in the wee hours of the night. I'm glad we have avoided this unthinkable event."

One resident posted in response to Fouts' post: "To to all of the people that received the alert on your phones, this is why. We gotta last till Friday y’all! So put in some layers and turn those thermostats down to 65 😊"

The experience prompted Fouts to consider how the city would provide care and transportation — in the event of a gas shut off — to the elderly, those with critical needs and everyday people. 

"We are a city of 135,000, and I don’t know how much stress it would have been for the critical care of people. How about the average people, how long would homes hold out with water pipe damage?" Fouts said.

Even now, Fouts said just before noon, that Consumer's officials are saying they are cautiously optimistic about the gas shortage.

"That does not give me complete faith. I dialed down my own thermostat so is City Hall. I'm urging residents to do everything they can," he said.

Fouts said he thinks officials need to hold a meeting to talk about future preparations for similar situations.

"That is what we have to do. We need to focus on energy use and energy needs. It's a sober wake-up call. We need to heed this for the future," Fouts said."I'm uncomfortable that we are on the grid which means if one thing goes everything goes."

Whitmer, meanwhile, on Thursday ordered a statewide review of energy infrastructure after the fire at the Macomb County facility sparked fears of a natural gas shortage.

Staff Writers Jonathan Oosting and Christine Ferretti contributed.