Southern California Gas Co. cut off shipments Monday to 98 of its largest customers in Orange County, forcing manufacturers, hospitals, universities and other commercial users to convert to more costly fuel oil.
Last month's unusually cold weather, which caused natural gas demand in California to soar, prompted the nation's largest gas utility to temporarily halt delivery to about 800 large, "interruptible-service" customers who are able to quickly switch to other fuel sources.
The curtailment affecting 98 of the company's 675,000 customers in Orange County is expected to reduce systemwide gas consumption by about 12% while it remains in effect, according to Rick Terrell, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based utility.
Several Orange County customers, who were notified of the cutback last week, said they were told to plan on no natural gas deliveries for about 30 days.
Some Orange County heating engineers spent Monday morning making "relatively easy" valve adjustments to enable boilers to burn fuel oil instead of gas. While many large users have the capability to use either energy source, fuel oil is less popular because it does not burn as cleanly and is currently more expensive than natural gas.
Although several county users said they had not had sufficient time to stock up on fuel oil, they do not expect the curtailment to cause major problems unless it continues for an unexpectedly long period.
"It's a matter of adjusting boilers and making sure you have oil," said Warren Johnson, chief steam operating engineer at UC Irvine. "There's a good supply now, but usually in the first days of a cutback, there might be a problem getting oil."
Commercial users, including the UCI Medical Center in Orange, reported smooth transitions to fuel oil.
"We made the switch well, but if the cold snap lasts four weeks, then we might have a problem," said Scott Rayburn, a spokesman for Hughes Aircraft's Ground Systems Division in Fullerton, which uses natural gas to fire its hot water boilers and steam generators.
The big users said the cutback hasn't caused them to increase conservation efforts.
"We already have a strong conservation policy now. And we'll stick with it," said Tom Whitfield, environmental health and safety officer at Cal State Fullerton.
Industrial and commercial customers capable of converting to alternate energy sources pay a lower, interruptible-service rate for natural gas if they agree to accept delivery cutbacks at the gas company's discretion. The utility will continue to provide gas to customers unable to make the switch but at higher rates.
Some interruptive service customers continue to receive gas for special purposes--such as in laboratories at Cal State Fullerton--through regular, non-interruptible-rate gas lines.
Although some gas company customers said they are prepared for a delivery stoppage at any time, the utility hasn't halted service since the winter of 1978-79, when natural gas supplies dwindled as a result of cold weather and federal price controls that restricted production. In California, gas service was cut back for about four weeks during that stoppage.
Southern California Gas spokesmen said they don't know how long the current cutback will continue, but they were heartened by Monday's slightly warmer weather. They also said that a potential supply disruption due to a price dispute between gas producers and pipelines did not materialize Monday as feared.
Residential customers aren't facing any reduction in gas service, but Terrell said they can expect increases in their gas bills in coming months. Residential users throughout the West have consumed more gas than usual this season, and the increased demand has caused gas prices to increase.
Some Orange County manufacturers and commercial users were relatively unaffected during the late December cold snap because their plants were shut down for holiday vacations.
"Most of the campus has been shut down since Dec. 24," said Whitfield at Cal State Fullerton, which reopened many of its offices Monday after a holiday vacation.