White House energy adviser James R. Schlesinger warned yesterday that there will not be enough natural gas for homes in some areas if the bitter cold that has closed schools and factories in 17 states persists through the weekend.
Schlesinger did not specify where and when homes might begin to lose their natural gas heat, but Federal Power Commission sources said that any prolonging of the cold wave east of the Rockies could stop the flow of gas supplies to homes in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia and South Carolina.
These four locations are terminating points for two major pipelines whose natural gas supplies are dwindling more rapidly than other pipelines hit by the natural gas shortage. One is the Transco pipeline, whose branches end at Philadelphia and New York. The other is Southern Natural Gas Co., which terminates in South Carolina.
Schlesinger, slapping his hand on the table to emphasize his concern, sounded his warning before the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. Besides Schlesinger, the subcommittee also heard the governors of Texas, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey and the heads of four major gas pipelines testify on President Carter's emergency natural gas bill.
"We have already used the gas we were going to use in February and March, which means that in a few weeks or even days we face gas cutoffs to homes," Schlesinger said. "We have no alternative but to get serious as a nation about energy conservation."
As Schlesinger was testifying, the Senate took up debate on Carter's natural gas bill without sending the bill to committee. An atmosphere of crisis prevailed yesterday on the Senate floor, where Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) predicted a vote by Monday if "senator restrain themselves in offering amendments."
Carter's Emergency Natural Gas Act is written so that it would allow the President to force natural gas out of one interstate pipeline and into another It also would authorize the sale of unregulated gas in states such as Texas, Louisana, Kansas and Oklahoma into the interstate pipeline network, where prices are regulated and the shortage is most keenly felt.
Schlesinger told the packed hearing room that quick passage of the bill is critical if homes are not to lose their natural gas heat. He said that the bill deliberately avoids long-term issues such as deregulation of interstate natural gas because all that would do is pit foes and allies of deregulation against one another and delay the bill's passage.
"We want to generate immediate action," he said, "not immediate debate."
Schlesinger acknowledged that the bill would not solve the current gas shortage and might not even stem the tide of school and factory closings in the 17 states where the shortage is worst.
"The bill cannot solve the industrial unemployment problem," he said. "This bill is designed to assure that American homes do not go cold . . . We believe this must be our first objective."
Schlesinger and four governors and four pipelines executives who followed him told the same sad tale yesterday - that the worst winter in 100 years east of the Rockies had strained the natural gas pipeline network beyond its limits.
"We are losing so many jobs right now that I'm afraid our marginal industries will never reopen," Pennsylvania Gov. Milton J. Shapp said. "This natural gas crisis is devastating the state of Pennsylvania."
The FPC reported yesterday that the gas shortage had closed 8,900 factories in the 17 hardest-hit states, laying off an estimated 548,000 workers. This was an increase in layoffs of almost 150,000 in one day.
"Extremely cold weather is headed for the eastern U.S. this weekend and will cause heavy drawdown of already weakened underground storage reserves," the FPC said. "Continued storage drawdown combined with inadequate propane (bottled gas) supplies may result in loss of Priority One service later in the winter . . ."
The FPC parlance, Priority One includes homes, hospitals, nursing homes and essential industries such as drugs, food and transportation.
The cold weather east of Rockies began in October and has not let up much since. FPC Chairman Richard Dunham told the House subcommittee that the number of "heating degree days," which reflect greater use of fuel, have increased 40 per cent in the East this winter and as much as 70 per cent in the South.
Dunham said the cold weather resulted in the use of 276 billion cubic feet of gas this winter beyond that normally would have been used. He said the cold weather had drained an extra 300 billion cubic feet of gas from underground storage tanks, leaving pipelines with less than 60 per cent of the stored gas they had going into the heating season.
Underlying Dunham's point was a report yesterday by the Edison Electric Institute that electric output for the week ended Jan. 22 was 45.6 billion kilowatt hours, the highest weekly total in U.S. history. It was an increase of 12 per cent over the same week a year ago and supplanted the previous record, set the week ended Jan. 15 this year.
FPC sources said that gas stored by three major pipelines - Transco, Southern Natural Gas Co., and Columbia Gas Co. - had reached dangerously low levels.
By Jan. 15, Columbia was down to 40 per cent of its underground storage and was drawing between one and three billion cubic feet of gas out of its storage tanks every day. Columbia pipelines serve Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, among other states.
Southern was even worse off, with its storage tanks sinking to 24 per cent of capacity Jan. 15, when it had 10 billion cubic feet of gas left in underground tanks and wells. Southern picks up gas in Louisiana and pipes it to Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina. Its pipeline ends in South Carolina, which would be the first state to lose natural gas if pipeline pressure starts falling.
Transco storage tanks held an unknown volume of gas, but FPC sources indicated that its position was no better than Southern's. Transco pipelines end in Philadelphia and New York.