Factories closed in the 11 states most afflicted by the natural gas shortage will find it hard if not impossible to get the gas they need to reopen before April.
Those were, the assessments of Federal Power Commission Chairman Richard L. Dunham and FPC Commissioner John H. Holloman III, who said in separate interviews that depleted storage fields must be refilled before gas can be delivered to the factories that were forced to close and lay off an estimated 500,000 workers.
"This emergency will not be over when the cherry blossoms start to bloom," Holloman said, "I don't think you'll see any improvement in the industrial usage of gas the rest of the heating season."
Dunham said that while the nation was preoccupied by the natural gas shortage the U. S. capacity to make electricity was strained to the limit by the severe cold weather of the last month.
Demand for electricity was so great last week, Dunham said, that the United States had to buy electricity from Canada. The Northeast sent power to the Southwest through the complex grid that joins almost all of the lower 48 states. Buffalo borrowed power from Michigan because the coal used to fire generators in Buffalo fronze and could not be burned.
Even the West Coast, where the weather has been mild but where drough prevails, has not escaped the energy crunch. The Bonneville Power Administration yesterday warned its largest customers that unless a new source of power is found, they can expect a 25 per cent cut in electricity by late February because its hydroelectric supply is way down.
The Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which generates power for the San Francisco Bay area and most of northern California, predicted that "rolling blackouts" would begin by summer if the drought continues. PG & E depends on 55 hydroelectric stations in northern California for up to half its electricity.
Blackouts were averted last week, Dunham said, because regions of the country that were short of electricity were able to buy power from regions that had a surplus. The nation's natural gas pipelines do not interlock the way electrical transmission lines do, Dunham went on, making it hard to move gas from regions of surplus to those of shortage.
The goverment will be able to force unregulated intrastate gas into interstate pipelines under President Carter's Natural Gas Emergency Act, whic was passed yesterday by the House. The Senate took up the bill but did not complete action last night.
Dunham and Holloman said natural gas pipelines have dipped so deeply into the gas they have in storage that even improved weather and continued conservation by homeowners and small businesses are not likely to help the big industrial gas users.
The nations pipelines began last November's heating season with 1.73 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in their storage fields. That is almost 10 per cent of annual demand for natural gas all over the country and was felt at the start of the winter to be enough to get through the heating season, which ends March 31.
By Jan. 15, pipelines were down to less than 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.Just how much gas is now in storage fields is unknown, but some FPC estimates are that it is less than 800 billion cubic feet. The country has used as much as 100 billion cubic feet of gas a day this winter.
One big gas field outside Chicago owned by Peoples Gas Light & Coke Co. lost pressure so fast last week that emergency gas had to be pumped into the field to keep the gas flowing. Southern Natural Gas Co. lost so much storage pressure in South Carolina two weekends ago that it had to by uy natural gas from Florida and propane from Mississippi to keep pilot lights from going out.
"Southern almost lost its delivery pressures," Holloman said, Its system came as close as any this winter to caving in."
Holloman said the reason closed factories may not be able to reopen before April is that pipelines must, under FPC policy guidelines, refill their depleted storage fields before they can begin serving gas to industrial customers.
The FPC commissioner estimated that the pipelines in the eastern two-thirds of the nation will have to pump an extra 200 billion cubic feet of gas into their storage fields this summer to get them back into working condition.
"The factories just can't come back on until we get gas into those fields," Holloman said. "If February's weather stays as cold as January's it could mean these factory slowdowns will continue right through summer."
There are almost 400 natural gas storage fields serving the nation's 29 pipelines, which augment the gas they buy from producing fields in the heating season with gas they stored last summer.
Almost half the storage fields in the United States are in the East, where most of the natural gas is consumed. Another 60 are in the Midwest. Only nine are in the South, which is one reason why the Southern states have been so hard hit this winter: they have had so few storage fields from which to draw gas.
Estimates vary from state to state on how many factories may stay closed and how many workers stay away from their jobs because of the gas shortage, but FPC statistics indicate that as many as 500,000 workers in 11 states may be out of work another two months.
These workers are in the 11 states served by the five pipelines with the most critical storage shortage.
These pipelines are Southern Natural Gas Co.; Columbia Gas Supply Corp.; Consolidated Gas Supply Corp.; Texas Eastern Transmission Corp.; and Transcontinental Pipeline Corp. The states hardest hit are Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Yersey, New York, Virginia, Wesr Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.
The Commerce Department has estimated that as many as 1 million workers in 17 states have been laid off their jobs, but it figures that about half of these workers are people who will go back to their jobs as soon as the weather warms up.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department took special action yesterday to eliminate red tape and speed payment of unemployment insurance benefits to thousands of workers laid off because of the cold and gas shortage.
But as the same time, the Health, Education and Welfare Department rejected a plan to divert federal day care funds to emergency electric and heating bill payments for the poor. HEW said it has begun a study to see what kinds of fuel subsides it might make available later.
Conditions were at their worst in Buffalo and the rest of western New York, where winds gusted to 35 miles an hour and more snow fell Monday night on top of the 13 feet of snow that have fallen so far this winter.
Convoys of food trucks began moving in Buffalo yesterday from waterfront warehouses to restock depleted grocery stores. Store owners reported that after staples were consumed Saturday, patrons returned yesterday and "bought everything we had on the shelves."
Buffalo police reported at least two arrests of persons they said were caught looting food stores. One youth was arrested after he allegedly helped overturn a snowmobile that was bringing free rolls and bread to a Salvation Army mission in th heart of the city. Drifts were piled so high that snow reached the second story of many Buffalo houses, Preventing residents from getting out of their homes to shop.