One year after natural gas shortages closed schools and factories in 17 states and put thousands of Americans out of work, the United States has abundant supplies of gas and no immediate prospect of shortages, despite record blizzards and an extended coal strike.
Federal Energy officials and gas industry sources say warmer weather, energy conservation, shifts to other fuels and increased storage of gas have turned the situation around.
The Department of Energy estimates that as of Jan. 15 there was 38 percent more "working gas" available to interstate pipelines. The total gas supply is about 14 percent better than last year, according to department figures.
"We've had no problems that we know of, of anybody shutting down a plant or going on unemployment because of gas (shortages)," said Al Bass, who heads an Energy Department task force that monitors gas supplies daily.
An American Gas Association spokesman said "Almost all our member companies are in excellent shape. We don't forsee any problems for the rest of the winter."
The killer blizzards that swept the Midwest last week have, if anything, helped the gas supply situation, another energy official said. By keeping plants closed, the weather sharply cut industrial consumption of gas, assuring adequate supplies for homes and schools.
Gas industry sources said January is normally the coolest month of the year and the biggest for gas consumption, so the month's shivers are predictable.
A year ago, however, colder than usual weather in October, November and December depleted gas storage reserves, leaving supplies that were inadequate for the winter peak demand.
A year ago today, President Carter had just returned from a helicopter tour of the frozen midwest, where layoffs due to lack of fuel were estimated from 250,000 to 2 million. Virginia was in the midst of a gas curtailment that closed a third of its schools. Maryland's Eastern Shore was encased in ice, and dozens of plants were closed. Washington Gas Light was pleading with customers to conserve gas.
"The situation looks much different this year than it did last year," said one Energy Department official who tracks gas supplies. He said the only natural gas curtailments have been to interruptible industrial customers who normally are forced to switch to other fuels every winter.
Even the interruptible customers have been getting far more gas this year than last. Washington Gas Light has stopped deliveries to its interruptible accounts for only two days so far this winter. Last winter the interruptibles had been cut off for 35 days by now, said spokesman Paul Young.
Interruptiable customers have been cut off by Washington Gas Light only to reduce consumption during peak demand this year, while last year there was no gas for them for weeks at a time.
A big factor is the weather, which in Washington has been 22 percent warmer than last year. From the start of the heating season, Sept. 1, through Sunday, Washington's heating demand was 2,358 degree days, down from 3,105 degree days last year. A degree day is one day with an average temperature one degree below 65 degrees Farenheit.
Last year's winter cold hit earlier than usual - in October and November - depleting gas supplies before the expected icy days of January and February.
Up-to-date figures on total gas consumption could not be obtained, but a gas association official said gas use was down 2 percent going into the heating season.
The other big factor in the improved gas supply picture has been increased amounts of gas in storage. Even before last year's heating season was over, gas utilities began rebuilding their badly depleted supplies. By last July, they had more gas in storage than the year before. By September, there was 7 percent more gas in storage.
This year's abundance of gas proved to be both a surprise and an embarrassment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which took over much of the work of the old Federal Power Commission in the new Energy Department.
In June, FERC predicted that this winter's gas supply would decrease by 3 percent and the shortfall of gas delivered by pipelines to their customers would climb from 21 to 23 percent of contracted supplies. In fact, the gas supply increased, and utilities have been getting all but about 20 per cent of the gas they wanted.
FERC's June projections proved to be so far off base that FERC Chairman Charles Curtis recently killed a staff report that attempted to update the numbers.
In a decision that indicates how much the gas supply situation has improved. FERC last Friday turned down a pipeline's request for preapproval of a plan to use emergency procedures to buy high-priced intrastate gas and pass the cost on to its customers.
Telephone surveys over the weekend of the states hardest bit by the recent blizzards showed that none of them had developed any natural gas shortages.
Energy officials said the only plant closing they knew of was a fertilizer plant in the southeastern U.S. that closed down rather than pay the price asked for intrastate gas. "He could have had gas if he'd paid the price," said a spokesman.
They said a number of utility companies have met their demand by making synthetic natural gas and others are importing gas, but none of last winter's emergency allocations of fuel have been needed.
The coal strike is beginning to pinch some utility companies, but it has had little impact on natural gas use. There are few power plants or industries that can use both coal and natural gas.