Pipeline explosion leaves thousands in Canada without heat

Pipeline explosion in the Canadian province of Manitoba Saturday cut heat to thousands in municipalities south of Winnipeg, where the wind chill could reach minus 45 degrees F. Monday. The pipeline explosion is the latest example of extreme cold testing energy infrastructure across North America.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police via The Canadian Press/AP
A natural gas pipeline explosion shown Saturday in the Canadian province of Manitoba. No injuries have yet been reported, but residents in some municipalities south of Winnipeg could be without heating fuel for days.

A pipeline explosion Saturday cut heat to thousands in the Canadian province of Manitoba. No injuries have yet been reported in the natural gas pipeline explosion, but residents in some municipalities south of Winnipeg could be without heating fuel for days.

Officials are working to supply emergency compressed natural gas to critical locations as temperatures with wind chill could reach as low as minus 45 degrees F. Monday. Blizzard-like conditions hindered safety efforts over the weekend. 

The cause of Saturday's pipeline explosion, which sent a fireball into the dark Manitoban sky, is under investigation, but recent bouts of extreme cold have tested energy infrastructure from Minneapolis to Dallas to Boston. Fuel supplies have dwindled and prices have soared as one Arctic blast after another has swept through North America. In most cases, grid operators have been able to maintain stability throughout the extreme conditions.

Last week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared a state of emergency after extreme cold depleted supplies of propane, a fuel used to heat about 6 percent of Ohio households. Spot natural gas prices broke records in the Northeast, and the futures market rose by nearly 10 percent to close at $5.18 per million Btu Friday – its highest level in three and a half years. The Northeast's power grid operator asked the federal government Thursday for emergency approval to exceed a $1,000-per-megawatt-hour price cap on the power it sells to natural gas power plants. 

"[R]elief is needed this winter from the current market rules that demonstrably impose an untenable requirement for below-cost sales when fuel costs rise to levels already seen this winter," PJM Interconnection said in its filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commission approved the request on Jan. 24.

The effects of Saturday's pipeline explosion in Manitoba stretched as far down as Minnesota and west-central Wisconsin, where the local utility asked customers to conserve gas over the weekend.

"A big thanks to customers who have turned thermostats down to 60 and avoided using natural gas appliances since last night," read an alert on Xcel Energy's website Sunday evening. "We know your houses are uncomfortably cold, but we want you and your neighbors to know that your efforts have helped us maintain service to more than 100,000 customers. We ask you not to let up now."

TransCanada, the operator of the natural gas pipeline, said supply to south central Manitoba could begin to resume as early as Monday night, but some customers may be without natural gas for another two days.  

Manitoba Hydro, the utility serving the region, is asking all customers affected by the natural gas outage to keep doors and windows closed and use electric heaters. Customers without natural gas are also advised to keep tap water running slowly to keep pipes from freezing.

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