An unusual East Coast earthquake and an equally rare vicious north-moving hurricane bound up the U.S. East Coast Monday left many in the energy business wondering if they should begin preparing for a locust infestation. The Biblical end to the summer rounds up months of crisis that have included a nuclear disaster in Japan and an unprecedented U.S. debt crisis and massive grid-testing heatwaves in Texas.
Utilities, pipeline operators, refineries and transmission grid firms scrambled in the closing days of the week as Hurricane Irene approached the Carolina coast. It was forecast to move along the U.S. East Coast, gathering sustained power from the North Atlantic and impacting many of the country's most populous areas across the weekend.
The hurricane followed hard on the heels of an East Coast earthquake that shut the North Anna nuclear plant in Northern Virginia. The plant's automated emergency response operations were nearly flawless following the earthquake, which even rattled the AOL Energy offices in New York. The fact of a nuclear plant shutdown in the U.S. so soon after the dramatic events at Fukushima nonetheless raised new questions and brought up still-fresh fears about the safety of nuclear operations.
A Second Storm Rages On
Beyond the realm of the immediate crisis, the gears continued to turn on a longer-running drama; hydraulic fracturing's role in natural gas development.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie moved to place a moratorium on fracking in New Jersey, where none is currently taking place but projects have been proposed in the areas near the Marcellus Shale. Industry reaction to the move, which preempted a complete ban on fracking in the state, was mixed, with some natural gas supporters calling it a mistake and others underlining the importance of safety to the industry's future.
Natural gas riches have flowed in vast amounts to states that are unlikely energy giants, but the actual size of the resource is now under debate. The U.S. Geological Survey issued a report that laid out natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale as a fraction of previous estimates embraced by the industry. The government's top data bodies say they will accept the USGS numbers and use them in their influential forecasting models.
The revisions may have little impact on immediate plans for drilling or development. Still, they overshadow the prospects of cheap shale gas availability for utilities planning fuel consumption over decades.
Still Time For Technology
Further in the background, well behind the impending crisis of the hurricanes and earthquakes, and even behind the sound and fury of the natural gas fracking development debate, the vastly more transformational debate over technology's role in the U.S. energy industry continued to roil firms and regulators.
Customers are having trouble keeping up with the impacts that information and communication technology are having on energy pricing and energy services, IBM found in a global survey featured in a video released this week.
"Everything is changing so fast," one customer interviewed in the video says, echoing both the immediacy and the scale of changes in the energy business.
Regulators and politicians are struggling to find ways to integrate new technology into existing market and legal structures. The culmination of years of work, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's Order 1000 ran into objections this week from established utilities arguing its regional planning model is unfair. Regional leaders themselves are racing to understand the challenges ahead of them, with Western governors and officials gathering in support of a report sketching out the Western transmission grid's infrastructure investment needs.