What happens in a small town when the gas goes out?

A writer ponders his community’s dependence on natural gas in its absence.

 

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Salida, Colorado.


One morning recently, there was no natural gas in our small town. Some folks were cold. Despite the Western myth of self-sufficiency, almost no one had a wood-fired heating system that would warm the whole house. Out came the long underwear.

Unless you had an electric stove, there was no way to make breakfast or even coffee. I walked two blocks downtown to see what was happening. Nothing was going on except for a couple of signs saying things like: “Closed. No gas.”

A street in downtown Salida, Colorado, where a recent natural gas outage left one resident pondering the consequences of his community’s dependence on the fuel.

The hospital and nursing homes had back-up heaters powered by electricity, but no regular businesses did. By noon, it was clear that 3,900 gas customers were out of luck and would remain so for some days. A whole slice of the county was out of gas.

Reactions were typical. People who don’t normally walk around were on the street. No one was panicking, but there was lots of discussing. We’re used to the power going out or the internet going down or various other minor inconveniences, but not the gas going out. Once, we had a big truck dealing with a fender bender and a ruptured water hydrant at the stoplight. That was news. We have had a bit of flooding, too, but nothing more serious than that. We tend to take it all in stride.

Over the next few days, crews from the gas company went from house to house re-lighting pilot lights and checking the lines. The gas company had no comment about what happened to their big 4-inch line. By day three of the outage, the taco place had set up an outdoor kitchen and was using paper plates. That gave the street the feel of a small town in Mexico and added nice aromas to the air. The bakery employed its outside wood oven to bake bread, but there were no bagels on bagel day. My favorite coffee shop used electric stoves to make its usual brew.

After several days, the local gas company issued a statement, saying that the outage wasn't its fault, because the pipe had been breached higher up the supply line. No further statements were expected. By day four, showers were an issue, and there were complaints of body odor permeating places. Showers were a particular problem, because it is now tick season. Everyone is careful to brush off the ticks before coming into the house, and dogs and cats have to be looked over carefully. Nothing is as good as a shower to help check a human body for those little critters. They love crevices.

Once again, neighborliness helped out. A few residents had electric water heaters. One woman on our block answered her phone with a message: “Susies spa and day shower; can I help you?”

As I write this, we are at day six, and the last few customers are getting gas. But some questions remain. How did we become so dependent on natural gas? Have we been sold a bill of goods about how safe and reliable the stuff it is? Is it truly a bridge fuel?

The theory is that natural gas wells release less greenhouse gas than do oil rigs and coal plants. That's probably true, but drive through any natural gas patch and you'll still hold your nose. And unless you own the mineral rights, a gas rig can easily get so close to your house that you can grin at the guys and gals in their yellow hard hats. I know were supposed to believe that fracking does no lasting damage, but do we know that’s true?

The Trump administration has a full-court press going against wind and solar energy. Mostly this is done by tilting the tax tables toward fossil fuels. And a few coal-fired electricity plants scheduled to be mothballed have been resurrected. Railroad coal loadings tell the real tale, though. They are steadily down even though the decline has slowed since Donald Trump came into power. Liquefied natural gas is going gangbusters right now. Thats bound to increase the price of gas.

For now, we seem stuck with this natural gas “bridge fuel.” We can cope when gas goes away for a week, but is our reliance on it a good thing?

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • TROUT UNLIMITED NORTH IDAHO FIELD COORDINATOR
    The field coordinator will work with TU members, other fishing organizations, community leaders, businesses and elected officials to build support for actions necessary to recover...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.