Bitter cold and natural gas shortages shutter auto plants

DETROIT — Auto plants and other big energy users throughout Southeast Michigan are shutting down or limiting operations due to a natural gas shortage caused by a fire and frigid weather.

At least 18 factories and other facilities run by General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler were affected Thursday. It’s not clear when they’ll resume normal operations.

The fire hit a Consumers Energy natural gas compressor station north of Detroit on Wednesday as record-cold temperatures swept over the region.

The utility says gas flow from the station was shut off, putting Michigan residents at risk of brief service interruptions in subzero temperatures.

Fiat Chrysler closed its truck assembly plants in Warren and Sterling Heights, Michigan, while Ford reduced operations at two transmission factories and a plant that stamps parts for the hot-selling Ford Ranger small pickup near Detroit. Ranger production was unaffected for now.

General Motors was hit much harder, suspending operations at factories in Flint, Lansing, Saginaw, Pontiac, Orion Township and Bay City, Michigan. The Flint plant is gearing up for the launch of new heavy-duty pickup trucks. Even General Motors’ sprawling technical centre in Warren, Michigan, north of Detroit, was closed and its roughly 20,000 employees were told to stay home. About 30,000 employees were affected at GM alone.

Only factories served by Jackson, Michigan-based Consumers Energy were affected. Plants powered by the region’s other utility, DTE Energy, had no disruptions.

Automakers were hoping that the plants can return to normal operations as temperatures moderate on Saturday and into next week, but they weren’t sure when that will happen. By Thursday afternoon, GM reported “limited operations” had resumed at some component plants with parts of the factories open or a limited number of machines working.

If the natural gas shortage lasts only a few days, the economic impact of the shutdowns is likely to be small. Automakers usually can make up for lost production days by increasing assembly line speeds, but if the plants are closed or limited for a long time, that gets harder. Workers will get paid even though their buildings are closed.

“We are assessing the impact on our operations, but we expect the impact will be minimal,” GM spokeswoman Kimberly Carpenter said in a statement.

Other businesses also have been affected. Spartan Motors, which makes emergency and other large vehicles, suspended manufacturing in Charlotte, Michigan, near Lansing, idling about 800 workers. It plans to resume work on Sunday evening. Dart Container Corp., switched natural gas boilers to oil and curtailed some operations near Lansing that use natural gas.

Hemlock Semiconductor, with operations in the Saginaw area about 110 miles (177 kilometres) north of Detroit, cut production to help Consumers Energy. Hemlock is a large electricity user.

Consumers Energy’s CEO Patti Poppe made an appeal Wednesday night for customers to reduce their natural gas usage. Localized outages were possible for some homes and businesses if demand isn’t reduced.

The utility said in a statement Thursday that it’s “cautiously optimistic” its requests to curb natural gas use are “having a positive effect.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also appeared in a video online Wednesday night and said the request to lower thermostats was for those in the Lower Peninsula. Temperatures in the state were at their lowest levels of the week, with readings around negative 12 degrees (negative 24 degrees Celsius) in the Detroit area and at bitterly cold levels statewide.

No one was injured in the fire Wednesday at Consumers Energy’s Ray Natural Gas Compressor Station in Macomb County. The cause of the fire was under investigation. The company said all gas flow from the station was shut off, and that it activated natural gas peaking storage fields to help meet demand for gas.

The Associated Press