Floods, winds, blizzards: Testing the Northeast’s gas-guzzling grid

By Peter Behr | 01/12/2024 06:58 AM EST

Unresolved issues among gas and power companies that nearly led to a regional energy catastrophe in 2022 persist.

Steam rises from the Consolidated Edison power plant on Jan. 5, 2018, in New York City.

Steam rises from a power plant as the Northeast dug out from a January 2018 snowstorm. John Moore/Getty Images

This week’s winter weather is a harsh reminder that a deep freeze a year ago slashed gas production in Pennsylvania, crippled pipeline networks, triggered blackouts and almost plunged New Yorkers into an energy crisis.

Flood warnings, high winds and tornadoes in the East earlier in the week and an Arctic blast expected to move across the Midwest and into the Ohio Valley starting Friday are renewing concerns about what played out during Winter Storm Elliott, a monster storm that stretched from the Great Lakes to Tennessee when it reached the eastern U.S. on Dec. 23, 2022. Labeled a “bomb cyclone” because of its combination of freezing temperatures and high-velocity winds, the storm seized power grids and natural gas utilities along the Eastern Seaboard.

New York City came within a day of a disaster that utility Consolidated Edison says could have cut off gas to more than a million homes and businesses. Potential scenarios were horrific: People dying from the cold, emergency evacuations and buildings wrecked by flooding from broken water pipes.


To make sure pilot lights were on before turning on the gas again, utility technicians would have had to visit each customer. It might have taken a month or more to restore gas to city boroughs, Con Edison officials and federal regulators said.

The energy system’s close call exposed the long-standing failure of the natural gas and power industries to align their markets, planning, communications and operations to deal with emergency conditions. It was the fifth major winter storm in 11 years causing widespread power outages that jeopardized grid operations, including Winter Storm Uri in 2021, which was blamed for at least 240 deaths and billions of dollars in property losses in Texas.

Key gas and power industry players are working on solutions to ensure U.S. gas producers and pipelines deliver for electricity consumers. In E&E News interviews, they acknowledge those talks are at an impasse.

“There isn’t a clear path forward,” said Jim Robb, chief executive of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., or NERC, which oversees the bulk power grid.

Elliott shut between one-quarter and one-half of the gas pipeline flows out of the Appalachian shale gas basins stretching across Pennsylvania and Ohio. That meant cuts to fuel supplies for gas turbine plants, the dominant source of electricity across the Northeast.

As a result of collapsing pipeline pressure, Con Edison was pushed to the brink, according to a joint investigation of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and NERC.

The drop in gas production forced Duke Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority to order rolling blackouts. Outages took out 18 percent of all the U.S. power plant capacity within the tightly synchronized grid between the eastern Rocky Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.

At the storm’s height, 127,000 megawatts of mostly natural gas generation went down.

The gas-grid breakdown

“America’s natural gas infrastructure and electric grid continue to be severely challenged during extreme cold weather events,” FERC and NERC said in the report on Elliott, “repeatedly jeopardizing reliability during life-threatening conditions, even when technology exists to protect the vulnerable components.”

Even basic communication broke down during Elliott. As one power plant after another shut down or could not start, operators for the mid-Atlantic-based PJM Interconnection — the largest U.S. grid operator — called on backup power plants that were supposed to be ready to operate. But a stunning number of these plants could not run either.

PJM operators in the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, control center often found out only at the last minute that a plant they counted on was down, PJM said in its investigative report on Elliott. A critical issue was the loss of natural gas supplies, whether because gas equipment froze or power generators had not secured gas deliveries in advance of the storm. Some generators were not willing to pay sky-high spot market prices for gas during the storm, according to PJM.

The misalignment leaves the United States facing growing extreme weather risks as executives inside the gas and power industries disagree over a path forward. And part of the issue is just how far apart the regulatory regimes governing the two industries are. One is an electric power industry with mandatory reliability rules. The other is a gas industry that flatly rejects such regulation, Robb and other officials said.

“No regulatory entity is tasked with ensuring the reliability of the natural gas fuel supply,” the Elliott report noted. Acting FERC Chair Willie Phillips punctuated the report with a plea to Congress to extend federal oversight of interstate electric power networks to the gas sector. “Someone must have authority to establish and enforce gas reliability standards,” Phillips said in a statement attached to the Elliott report.

Creating mandatory gas regulation would require congressional action, and although that has often been proposed, nothing has happened, noted Susan Tierney, senior adviser for the Analysis Group who co-chaired a lengthy review of grid and gas policy last summer.

For one, she said, energy committees in Congress are typically packed with people representing states that produce oil and gas. “It doesn’t surprise me that it’s hard at times to gather broad bipartisan support for taking action that the gas industry doesn’t want,” Tierney said.

Todd Snitchler, head of the Electric Power Supply Association, which represents competitive power generators, said gas producers and pipeline companies have resisted mandates. He didn’t see support from the gas industry for mandatory reliability regulation.

The American Exploration and Production Council, the trade group with the largest membership of Eastern gas producers, submitted an analysis of the Elliott event to FERC, but officials there declined requests to comment on proposals to regulate the gas sector.

‘Same risks going into this winter’

Robb’s organization, NERC, recently reported that much of the United States could face power shortages in extreme winter storms, citing threats to both power plants and gas delivery infrastructure that aren’t adequately protected against the cold.

Changes that have been made aren’t likely to be enough in severe storms, said Mark Olson, NERC manager of reliability assessments.

“We really have the same risks going into this winter,” said Thomas Coleman, executive director of the Grid Security Project at SAFE, an advocacy group of military and business leaders focused on energy security. Before joining SAFE, Coleman was a NERC investigator of the 2021 winter storm emergency in Texas, which left almost 250 people dead.

Laws and regulations have often changed after a disaster involving the electric grid.

After the 1979 Three Mile Island reactor emergency, the nuclear industry created its own safety monitoring agency. Oversight was tightened. The 2003 Northeast blackout, which cut off power to 50 million people in the eastern U.S. and Canada, exposed the critical need for mandatory grid reliability standards, which Congress created two years later.

Con Edison’s close call hasn’t yielded the same response. The event passed almost unnoticed outside of the power and gas industries and their regulators. There has been almost no public pressure on officials to make sure a potential horror show never plays out in the Eastern metropolises.

“It seems to have been ignored,” said Snitchler of the gas generator group. “I remained stunned.”

New Yorkers were lucky, it turned out. On Christmas Eve, as the crisis at Con Edison hit a peak, the utility was able to draw on emergency reserves of stored liquefied natural gas. The storm moved on, temperatures tipped upward and gas demand slackened. Pipeline pressures recovered, and there were no interruptions.

“They got bailed out,” Robb said. “Had that cold front persisted one more day, we would have been in a real world of hurt in the Northeast,” he told a conference last year.

Con Edison declined to discuss the emergency’s details, issuing a statement to E&E News saying, “The actions that we and other local gas distribution companies took during the storm averted a life-threatening emergency.”

It pleaded with industry leaders, lawmakers and regulators to create policies or mandatory rules to ensure gas supplies to customers and power plants in extreme cold weather.

That’s not happening now, industry officials and regulators acknowledge.

Gas and power discord

Following Elliott, the Electric Power Supply Association created the Reliability Alliance, a coalition of gas and electric trade groups, to look for solutions. “[No] region, market model, or generation technology is immune to extreme weather conditions, stated the alliance members. “So how can the power grid be fortified to ensure customers have the electricity they need?”

A position paper submitted to FERC calls for incremental changes, including faster approval of proposed gas pipeline projects and changes in energy market procedures to ensure generators get essential fuel supplies during extreme weather events.

Some FERC commissioners have been calling for those changes for a dozen years, without support from the gas sector.

“It’s not going to get any better on its own,” then-FERC Commissioner Philip Moeller said at an industry meeting in 2012.

The prospect of going beyond smaller steps is clouded by a yearlong discussion led by the North American Energy Standards Board and 370 natural gas and electric grid executives, conducted at FERC’s request. The NAESB Gas-Electric Harmonization Forum produced 20 proposals. Some options won approval, but on some of the most impactful options, the gas and grid representatives split sharply along tribal lines, the project’s co-chairs ruefully acknowledged.

“[O]n many critical recommendations, the natural gas and electric industries hold widely divergent opinions,” the NAESB forum’s three chairs wrote in an introduction to the report.

The three leaders — Tierney, energy consultant and former DOE official Robert Gee, and former FERC Chair Pat Wood III — said they were deeply disturbed by the sharp split between the two sectors’ officials on the most consequential proposals.

“It reflects a fundamental lack of agreement regarding the lessons learned from these past two winters and the challenges ahead in ensuring that outages no longer occur owing to a failure between these two systems,” they said in the report’s introduction.

Their example was the sharp debate between gas and grid officials over a common gas industry practice called “force majeure,” a standard contract provision that allows pipelines to cancel delivery contracts to utilities when they can cite extreme events beyond their control.

Following the 2021 Winter Storm Uri in Texas, some utilities charged that gas industry operators took advantage of this contract escape clause, canceling scheduled deliveries at preset rates in order to resell the gas on spot markets when gas prices typically shoot up.

“Oftentimes, you get these big events, and all of a sudden force majeure is called,” said Coleman, the former Uri storm investigator. “Sometimes it seems a lot more than a coincidence,” he said. But that’s speculation, he added, because without oversight, only gas suppliers or pipelines know what happened.

A draft NAESB recommendation would have subjected force majeure practices for review and would have considered penalties for operators that did not “adequately weatherize” their facilities. When this proposal was put to a vote, a majority of the entire forum approved it. But all of the gas producers and 90 percent of the pipelines rejected it. All of the power generators, local gas-distributing utilities and electric utilities supported it.

The discord led the three chairs to call for federal regulation of gas operations.

The next attempt at finding a compromise falls to a new committee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the organization of state-level grid regulators that will take up the NAESB recommendations.

Julie Fedorchak, a North Dakota utility commissioner and the newly elected association president, has put solutions to the gas-grid impasse at the top of her agenda.

But she told E&E News, “At this point, I don’t have a notion about what the solutions could be.”

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify recommendations by the Reliability Alliance for how to better align natural gas and power markets.