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Natural Gas Shortage Ends, Auto Plants Resume Production

They were initially forced to close or cut operations after a fire knocked out a natural gas compressor station north of Detroit.

Todd McInturf/Detroit News via AP

DETROIT (AP) — Dozens of Michigan auto plants and large commercial buildings that were forced to close or cut operations Thursday due to a natural gas shortage can resume production at midnight. Consumers Energy had asked the plants and other big gas users to curtail work for fear of running out of gas for homes and other critical buildings during a record-setting deep freeze.

The shortage was caused by a fire Wednesday that knocked out a natural gas compressor station north of Detroit just as temperatures plummeted. Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe said Thursday afternoon that crews had repaired part of the fire-damaged station and ample gas supplies are now available. 

General Motors, which had shuttered more than a dozen plants in the Detroit, Lansing, Flint and Saginaw areas, already was restarting factories. The company said workers would return to three Lansing-area factories on Thursday's night shift, and other announcements were expected.

At least 18 factories and other facilities run by General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler were affected.

Consumers Energy, the state's largest natural gas provider, said gas flow from the compressor station had to be shut off, leaving Michigan residents at risk of brief service interruptions in subzero temperatures. The utility said more than 100 of its largest industrial customers cut their gas usage to help get through the shortage.

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.

General Motors was hit much harder, suspending operations at factories in Flint, Lansing, Saginaw, Pontiac, Orion Township and Bay City, Michigan. A Flint plant is gearing up for the launch of new heavy-duty pickup trucks. Even General Motors' sprawling technical center 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.

Consumers Energy had asked its 1.7 million customers and others to continue to set their thermostats at 65 degrees or lower — 62 degrees if they are away from home for more than five hours. Poppe credits residential customers and large industrial users that stopped operations with stepping up to help ensure people have heat.

"In our 130 years, we've never experienced this kind of demand or these kinds of temperatures," Poppe said. The utility, she said, had been prepared to supply more natural gas due to the frigid weather until Wednesday's fire at its largest storage and distribution facility.

The economic impact of the shutdowns is likely to be small. Automakers usually can make up for a few lost production days by increasing assembly line speeds. Workers will get paid even though their buildings were closed.

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. Dart Container Corp., switched natural gas boilers to oil and curtailed some operations near Lansing that use natural gas.

Temperatures in the state early Thursday fell to their lowest levels of the week, with readings around negative 12 degrees 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 it activated natural gas peaking storage fields to help meet demand.

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