Whitmer asks regulators to probe Consumers fire, create new contingency plan

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer holds an update meeting and then answers a few questions from the media at the State Emergency Operations Center near Dimondale on Thursday.

Dimondale — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday ordered a statewide review of energy infrastructure after a fire at a Consumers Energy facility sparked fears of a natural gas shortage during a bitter freeze.

Whitmer is asking the Michigan Public Service Commission to review the supply and deliverability of natural gas, electricity and propane supplies. She wants new contingency plans developed by July 1, with a final assessment report to follow.

"It is important that we get a handle on what's happened here and how we make sure that we are in a stronger position the next time we confront something of this nature," Whitmer told reporters during a press conference at the State Emergency Operations Center in Dimondale.

The governor acknowledged she is concerned by Consumers Energy's disclosure that nearly two-thirds of its natural gas supply flows through the Armada Township facility that caught fire Wednesday morning and is susceptible to interruption.

But Whitmer said she is also worried that climate change is producing "temperatures and fluctuations like none we've seen before." The state must ensure dependable energy sources in the face of "increasingly frequent weather patterns," she said.

The East Lansing Democrat late Wednesday joined Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe in urging residents to turn down their thermostats to reduce natural gas usage and avoid potential shutdowns. The company on Thursday recommended customers continue conserving natural gas through midnight. 

“We fully support the review,” Poppe said of Whitmer's order to state regulators. “We’re very interested in partnering with the state to make sure the system is robust and resilient.”

The state on Wednesday sent out a mass alert to mobile phones and robocalled approximately 54,000 state employees asking them to play their part by turning down their thermostats to 65 degrees or lower.

“Because everyone pitched in and did that, we made it through the night,” Whitmer said. 

The governor closed state offices and sent non-essential personnel home on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday due to snow and sub-zero temperatures, but normal operations are expected to resume Friday. 

In a briefing, Jim Maczko of the National Weather Service told Whitmer that Michigan is as cold as it's been since 1994, calling the combination of subzero temperatures and high winds a "pretty historic, rare event."

“We are seeing temperatures and fluctuations like we've never seen before … and so we've got to be prepared,” the governor said.

State government and the utilities need to ensure the production and delivery of natural gas is safe and dependable so the state can navigate "these increasingly frequent weather patterns," Whitmer said.

The root cause of the Wednesday fire at Consumer Energy's largest storage and delivery facility remains under investigation but one of three plants at the Armada Township site has been back online since last night, Poppe said.

A Consumers Energy assessment of the two other plants remains ongoing and a timetable to have them fully functional again is not yet known.

Capt. Chris Kelenske said the Michigan State Police and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating “the cause and the origin” of the fire at the Consumers Energy facility.

Poppe said Thursday that 79 companies contributed to the overall stability of the system in Michigan. No customers have lost service or experienced an interruption as a result of the crisis, she said. 

"I understand people are angry about this. I would be, too," she said.

In a typical Michigan winter day, about 2.5 billion cubic feet of gas moves across the state. With the extreme temperatures, Poppe said, there was 3.3 billion cubic feet of demand Wednesday and it was forecast to be around 3.7 billion Thursday. 

The Macomb County facility that experienced the fire Wednesday supplies 64 percent of the natural gas in Michigan, Consumers Energy has said. 

The facility in Armada Township has grown gradually over the years and is coupled with the largest storage field in the state, said Nick Assendelft, a spokesman for the Michigan Public Service Commission that oversees rates for the state's major utilities.

“It kind of grew into this critical part of their infrastructure,” Assendelft said.

Whenever a weather event affects energy output to ratepayers, the Public Service Commission works with companies to determine the cause and future preventative measures, he said.

“It is still way early in this process to give any determination as to how extensive that review would be,” Assendelft said.

The fire affected Consumers' ability to deliver gas on hand at the facility and its storage. The company has 15 other storage fields and leveraged other resources from interstate pipelines, including its sister and brother utility, Detroit Edison, Poppe said.

Staff writers Beth LeBlanc and Christine Ferretti contributed.