Delta Township — State officials said Thursday they have "serious" concerns about gas safety as they launched an investigation into last week's Consumers Energy facility fire that forced Michigan residents into lowering their thermostats during subzero temperatures.

Last week's Macomb County facility fire was preceded by the explosion of a high-pressure gas line in Orion Township last year and the disruption of natural gas to Belle Isle in December when contractors cut into a natural gas line beneath the Detroit River, said Michigan Public Service Commissioner Norman Saari.

And this past weekend, there was a gas explosion in Pontiac and an accidental dig into a gas line in Warren, he said.

The consistent issues plaguing the industry have prompted “increasing, serious concern” about gas utility safety programs in Michigan, Saari said.

Michigan Public Service commissioners Sally Talberg and Norman Saari officially opened two probes. One will investigate the circumstances surrounding a Jan. 30 fire at Consumers Energy’s Ray Compressor and another, at the request of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, will review the state’s supply and delivery of natural gas and propane.

The Consumers' facility fire in Armada Township cut off natural gas supplies during peak demand, prompting the utility to ask large business customers to reduce their energy use and residents to reduce their thermostats to 65 degrees. At peak times, the facility generates 64 percent of Consumers Energy's natural gas supply.

The consequences of the compressor station fire in the bitter cold “could have led to widespread natural gas outages and even death for some customers,” said Dave Chislea, the Public Service Commission's gas operations section manager.

The commission’s investigation, Saari said, will stress “there is no acceptable compromise for safety programs, no allowable shortcuts, quick fixes or cutting corners in the design, construction and operation of natural gas systems.”

The probe will explore Consumers’ response to the fire, the company’s coordination with state officials, its natural gas reductions for customers using larger quantities, the cost to Consumers and the potential cost to energy users who had to shut down during the emergency.

While some industrial users shut down to preserve energy, the commission is investigating whether they did so at the request or demand of Consumers, Talberg said.

During the crisis, Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe asked residents to turn down their heat or risk intermittent shutoffs. The request was lifted after about 24 hours.

The disruptions would have been difficult to accomplish, Talberg said, since natural gas shutoffs have to be done by a qualified employee at each home’s meter.   

“Just having the manpower to be able to do that in a timely manner, again, when you’re dealing with really extreme cold temperatures,” would be a challenge and pose "potentially life-threatening conditions" for consumers, she said.

The cooperation of residents and businesses in conserving energy, supplemental gas supplies from out of state and the restoration of one of the Macomb County compressor station units “were really what was critical to restore service,” Talberg said.

Consumers Energy will provide its initial findings to the public service commission by April 7 and the commission staff will file its report May 8.

Consumers senior vice president of operations Garrick Rochow told The Detroit News this week that the company believes the blaze started when a fire-detection system in one of the facility's three plants activated, apparently perceiving a nonexistent fire.

After activation, gas was vented out of the stack and ignited, Rochow said. The fire tripped the other two buildings "into firegate mode," he said, adding the company is investigating why these events happened.

The public will be able to provide input on the scope of the investigation between Feb. 12 and Feb. 19, then comment on the initial July 1 report. A final report is due Sept. 13.

Statewide energy concerns

Talberg noted that the investigation into natural gas and propane supplies will encompass the Upper Peninsula, which has been a source of concern amid calls for the shutdown of the Line 5 pipeline spanning the Straits of Mackinac.

Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, last week praised Whitmer’s calls for an investigation but criticized the governor and Attorney General Dana Nessel for “fast and loose” calls for a Line 5 shutdown. He called on them to stop their “reckless opposition” to the tunnel construction beneath the straits.

“…it took the lives of lower Michigan residents being endangered for her to drop the campaign rhetoric and acknowledge the obvious importance of heating fuel in a Michigan winter,” LaFave said in a statement. “She ought to be just as concerned about the hundreds of thousands of Northern Michigan and Upper Peninsula residents who rely on the life-saving heat coming through the Straits.”

LaFave's statement came two days after he took to Twitter to criticize the emergency alert sent out to Michigan residents: “Who the hell authorized the emergency alert network at 10:30 p.m. for a private company?”

Roughly 65 percent of the propane statewide and 65 percent of the propane in the Upper Peninsula is delivered via Line 5, said Enbridge Energy spokesman Ryan Duffy.

The natural gas liquid that supplies the Upper Peninsula’s propane never travels over the Straits segment of Line 5, but instead is transported west to east from Superior, Wisconsin to the U.P.’s Rapid River, Duffy said. But he said a Line 5 shutdown would still affect the U.P.'s propane supply.

The material transported through Line 5 includes additional natural gas liquid that is converted to propane in Sarnia for the Lower Peninsula and oil that pushes the natural gas liquid and eventually reaches refineries in Sarnia and Detroit.

Without the possibility of delivering those products to the Lower Peninsula, Enbridge likely would also stop delivery of natural gas liquids in the Upper Peninsula through Line 5, Duffy said.

Instead, propane companies would need to transport the natural gas liquid by truck or train, Duffy said, “and that is difficult in the UP, having trucks on the road in the winter.”

Consumers Energy is expected to testify about last week's incident in front of the House Energy Committee within a couple of weeks, said the committee’s chairman Rep. Joe Bellino. The agency also will eventually testify before the Senate’s Energy and Technology Committee, said the committee's chairman, Sen. Dan Lauwers.

“We’re not looking for blame here,” said Lauwers, R-Brockway Twp. “We’re looking for solutions and prevention.”

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