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Pipeline explosion in Canada cuts off Northwest natural gas supply

Rupture forces Clark Public Utilities to shut down plant for a week

By , Columbian staff writer

Although customers in Clark County didn’t feel the effects, a natural gas pipeline explosion in Northwest Canada last week crippled supplies throughout the state and forced local utilities to find alternative ways to keep up energy production.

A 36-inch pipeline in Prince George, British Columbia, ruptured Oct. 9, and nearly all gas imported into the Pacific Northwest at Sumas — a Washington town on the border with Canada — was cut off. By 3 a.m. the next day, all natural gas-fired plants in the Northwest were shut down, including Clark Public Utilities’ Lower River Road Generating Power Plant.

The plant was shut down for nearly a week after the disruption. It came back online Tuesday night.

The Lower River Road plant supplies a base load of electricity to Clark County customers, so when the utility was asked to take it offline, it needed to replace that energy. Clark Public Utilities responded by purchasing power from the open market — where prices shot up immediately but stabilized soon after the explosion.

“We were fortunate to be in a period of mild weather so we didn’t have to buy much,” said Clark Public Utilities spokeswoman Erica Erland, adding that the economic impact to the utility should be negligible. “Had the rupture occurred during a time of more extreme weather and higher energy demand, it could have had a much greater impact in terms of both service interruption and power prices.”

Erland said service resumed after the gas was rerouted to a 30-inch pipeline that runs parallel to the damaged one.

Melissa Moore, spokeswoman for NW Natural, said the company also typically receives its natural gas from Canada. However, the utility is not experiencing a shortage as it has a reserve of stored gas. The utility has some industrial customers who agree to a set rate in exchange for having their supply interrupted when the need arises. Those customers’ supplies were cut during the first day of the shortage, but the stoppage was lifted shortly thereafter.

“Our 80,000-plus residential and commercial customers in Clark County have not been asked to do anything as their service is not impacted,” she wrote in an email. “We will continue to monitor the situation and our supply closely and let our customers know if anything changes.”

Before the pipeline ruptured, the United States imported 1.1 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas at Sumas — accounting for about a quarter of the Pacific Northwest’s annual average consumption of natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. On the afternoon of Oct. 11, flows at the pipeline were zero, according to the administration. However, Reuters reported the same day that the parallel 30-inch pipeline became operational.

Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon are home to two underground natural gas storage fields with a combined working capacity of about 41 billion cubic feet: the Jackson Prairie Underground Natural Gas Storage Facility in Lewis County and NW Natural’s Mist Underground Natural Gas Storage Facility in Columbia County, Ore.

Columbian staff writer

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