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Take a look on bright side of this month’s arctic blast



Published: Fri, January 31, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

For millions of Ohioans in the Northeast and Pennsylvanians in the west fed up with January’s arctic assault, the heat is on Punxsutawney Phil this weekend. Most will cheer for the celebrated groundhog to avoid seeing his shadow Sunday morning, thereby heralding an early arrival of spring.

But folklore and bad rodent science aside, the National Weather Service predicts continued below-average temperatures in our region through at least early March. That trend likely will continue to drag down spirits and push up the costs of energy, including natural gas, America’s leading winter heating fuel.

In recent weeks as temperatures plummeted, natural-gas prices have soared. As of Thursday, they were up to about $5.55 per thousand cubic feet, a whopping 50 percent higher than this time last year. The steep decline in recent years stems in large part from the frenzy of domestic drilling in shale gas fields across the nation, including that of the Marcellus shale play in Ohio and neighboring states.

WISDOM OF CONSERVATION

Yet despite the discomfort of subzero temperatures and the scary spikes in gas bills, the deep freeze nonetheless has produced a potpourri of positives on personal, community and national levels.

On a personal plain, the bone-chilling cold has driven home the need and value of energy conservation. For example, Dominion East Ohio, the principal natural-gas supplier in our region, last week pleaded with its customers to turn down thermostats and lower the settings on water heaters to conserve the precious commodity.

The same philosophy, of course, applies to conservation of other utilities, such as electricity. FirstEnergy, for example, urges consumers to shut off unnecessary lighting, inspect doors and windows and to apply caulk or weather-stripping where necessary to keep cold air out.

The payback from such conservation for consumers is clear: lower prices and less waste of critical natural resources. Even as temperatures moderate in coming days, conservation is a habit Ohioans and Americans should adopt year-round.

On a community level, the short-term pain of frigid conditions could usher in the long-term gain of expedited oil and natural-gas production in the Mahoning Valley. Some analysts predict that the recent high demand and relatively low supply of natural gas soon will usher in a new and more intense era of drilling in the Marcellus Shale region that includes all three counties in the Mahoning Valley.

Rebounding prices

Enthusiasm for drilling slackened slightly in the past year. The low prices made natural gas an easy sell to large, industrial customers but slowed lease activity as companies waited for prices to rebound. That rebound clearly has arrived, and drilling companies likely may now find the time is ripe for intensified production, deliveries and sales, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

On a national level, expedited natural-gas production will continue to lower America’s dependency on foreign oil and natural gas. The lower business operating costs that result may also motivate more companies to insource their operations to the United States from overseas.

The multi-fold benefits of conservation and the prospects of heightened drilling may make some wonder whether a silver lining is attached to the abominable cold of recent days. And though we’ll continue to egg on Punxsutawney Phil to sidestep his shadow come Sunday, there’s reason to cheer even if the loveable critter calls for Old Man Winter to hang around for six more weeks.


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