Spire is warning of winter gas shortages. St. Louis officials call it fear-mongering
Updated at 5:40 p.m. Nov. 11, with comments from Spire officials and St. Louis elected officials
A federal commission will meet next week to consider whether to allow Spire to continue operating a natural gas pipeline in Missouri and Illinois this winter.
The 65-mile Spire STL Pipeline, which connects facilities in St. Louis County to a national network in Illinois, is currently operating under an emergency order until Dec. 13. Spire Missouri has faced sharp criticism from elected officials and advocates after the St. Louis-based utility emailed customers last week, warning that up to 400,000 homes and businesses could face gas shortages this winter if the emergency order isn’t extended.
“Without the STL Pipeline in place,” the email said in part, “you may be asked to conserve energy by turning down the thermostat in your home or business and reducing use of your natural gas appliances (fireplace, oven or another appliance).”
A dozen St. Louis officials filed an official comment with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday, referring to Spire’s email as “the very worst type of fear-mongering.”
The utility’s actions were “reckless” and have caused unnecessary anxiety among residents, 6th Ward Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia said during a press conference the same day.
“Communicating with customers and residents is one thing, but what they did completely overstepped the line,” said Ingrassia, who co-signed the comment to FERC.
The risk of gas shortages this winter is slim, Ingrassia said, and “Spire needs to make sure that their customers know.”
For Jesse Irwin, owner of the local heating and cooling company Carondelet Mechanical, Spire’s email led to a full inbox for his business, with Irwin receiving multiple inquiries from residents eager to move away from gas as an energy source. But right now, Irwin can’t help a lot of them actually make the switch to electric heat.
“The problem is, we’re in an equipment shortage,” Irwin told St. Louis on the Air. “And we’ve been having a hard time getting electric air handlers all year, especially [in] small sizes. … So there’s really nothing to switch over to. There’s also a propane shortage going on. So [Spire’s email] seems to have agitated my customer base.”
Spire officials maintain the company is working to highlight the importance of the pipeline and prepare customers in case it shuts down.
“The idea was never to raise concern,” Spire Missouri President Scott Carter said at a press conference Thursday, surrounded by dozens of uniformed employees. “We want to make sure our customers stay informed.”
Though the pipeline has been in the spotlight in recent days, legal challenges surrounding its operation have been in motion for months. In June, a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court ruled that FERC had improperly approved construction of the pipeline in 2018 and failed to demonstrate a need for it.
FERC’s approval of the project "looked to outsiders like it might be a little bit self-dealing [by Spire], and so what happened is an outside group, the Environmental Defense Fund, they decided to push back on this,” said Lea Kosnik, a University of Missouri-St. Louis economics professor. “They sought a review of the pipeline’s approval … and they took it to court.”
Kosnik, whose research interests include energy, regulatory and environmental economics, said she thinks “even the Environmental Defense Fund was like, ‘Wow, we won that.’”
“This court case was an opening to really get [FERC] to think about how they approve these pipelines,” she told host Sarah Fenske on Thursday’s show.
FERC has extended its approval so far to allow the STL Pipeline to operate until Dec. 13. Spire is hopeful the commission will extend that further at its meeting next week, but utility officials say there's no guarantee. "There is no certainty past Dec. 13 that this pipeline will continue to operate," said Sean Jamieson, general counsel for the STL Pipeline, during Thursday's press conference.
Still, Kosnik said she doesn’t think St. Louisans should worry too much about the pipeline actually closing, especially since the Environmental Defense Fund has also pushed for an extension of operations through the winter. She does see rising energy prices and higher energy bills as a potential concern.
In the meantime, Irwin said, electric solutions just don’t make sense in a lot of cases — particularly in St. Louis.
“Electric heat is really good in small spaces, [but] we have a lot of brick structures in this city,” he said. “They’re huge, and they’re hard to heat — they require a lot of BTUs. And gas is the solution [in those cases]. It’s the way to go.”
Irwin said the best tip he has for individual households right now is to make sure furnaces remain in working order this winter — by changing their furnace filter.
“You really don’t want your equipment to break down right now,” he explained. “This is the worst possible time to have to replace equipment or do repairs, and you can avoid so many of those things simply by changing your furnace filter to an inexpensive furnace filter — you don’t want a very expensive hypoallergenic furnace filter for most applications. You just want to get a normal pleated filter that allows you to have some air flow.”
Regionally, Kosnik added, the Spire situation is a good reminder of the importance of ensuring a mix of energy sources for any given community. “You don’t want to just rely on coal or oil or natural gas or one pipeline, for example,” she said.
As to Spire’s worrisome Nov. 4 email to consumers, Kosnik said that “historically, industry usually tends to overreact when they get new, surprising regulations.”
“And so industry usually in the moment sort of says, ‘Oh, my God, this is gonna be really expensive — consumer bills are gonna go up, we’re gonna have to shut down, we’re gonna go out of business.’ … Industry always says this is going to be ruinous,” the professor said. “And then you know what, they figure out how to deal with it.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan
Kate Grumke contributed to this report.