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Polar vortex breaks records in natural gas consumption

Cold weather and a polar vortex blanketed much of the Lower 48 states from January 29–31, resulting in record natural gas consumption in the United States. Estimated total natural gas demand posted a new single-day record on January 30, topping the previous record set on January 1, 2018.

Total estimated consumption by the power, industrial, and residential/commercial sectors and total estimated natural gas exports—by pipeline and as feedstock to liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities—reached 145.9 billion cubic feet (Bcf) on January 30, compared with the previous record of 143.9 Bcf set in 2018, according to data from PointLogic Energy.

The polar vortex in the Midwest and Northeast led to temperatures much colder than normal. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), daily temperatures in the Lower 48 states averaged 28° Fahrenheit (F) for the week ending January 31, which was 6°F lower than the 30-year average for the same period and 11°F lower than year-ago levels. The Midwest was the most heavily affected, with temperatures that were lower than normal by 25°F or more for three consecutive days.

Estimated use of natural gas by the residential and commercial sectors spiked to 70.9 Bcf on January 30, the third-largest residential and commercial daily consumption of natural gas on record, according to data from PointLogic Energy. The previous record was set on two days in January 2014 during another polar vortex event. This year, a handful of public utility companies in the Midwest issued noticesasking industrial and residential/commercial customers to temporarily reduce natural gas consumption during the cold weather event. A fire at a natural gas compressor station in Southeastern Michigan (Macomb County) prompted Consumers Energy—Michigan’s largest supplier of natural gas, serving 4.1 million customers—to ask residential and commercial customers to keep thermostats at or below 65°F when home and at 62°F when away from home. In response to Consumer Energy’s public call, the auto industry halted operations at 18 Michigan plants; keeping an estimated 23,000 employees at home, according to the Washington Post. The requests were intended to alleviate constraints and ensure deliverability to critical infrastructures such as hospitals.

Natural gas trade was also affected during the cold weather event. Net Canadian imports of natural gas during the polar vortex averaged 7.2 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) according to PointLogic Energy, an increase of 1.4 Bcf/d from levels in early January 2019. U.S. pipeline exports to Canada decreased, with some pipelines―the Empire pipeline in Western New York and the Great Lakes Transmission pipeline in Michigan―reversing flows and importing natural gas to serve U.S. population centers. The 1.75 Bcf/d Vector pipeline, which had been flowing at or near full capacity the week before the event, only exported 450 MMcf/d on average on both January 30 and 31 from the U.S. Midwest. Natural gas feedstock deliveries to liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities also decreased by 1 Bcf/d in mid-January from 4.9 Bcf/d in the previous weeks; however, this was primarily in response to relatively mild winter weather in Asia and soft global spot LNG prices.

Some delivery day natural gas prices were affected by the weather, although price spikes were more muted than in previous cold weather events. Market hubs in the Midwest and Northeast began to see an increase in spot market prices the day before the polar vortex (January 28). Prices returned close to normal the day after the event (February 1). During this period, prices at the Henry Hub national benchmark averaged $2.89 per million British thermal units (MMBtu); Midwest regional prices averaged $3.63/MMBtu, with a high of $4.66/MMBtu for natural gas delivered on January 30; and Northeast regional prices averaged $6.95/MMBtu, with a high of $9.95/MMBtu for natural gas delivered on January 29. Prices at the Consumer Energy trading hub in Michigan were largely unaffected by the compressor station outage, averaging $3.15/MMBtu.


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