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?

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