Extreme cold in the Southwest Wednesday through Friday, causing well freeze-offs and compressor failures due to power outages, curtailed gas deliveries to thousands of customers in New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California supplied through El Paso Natural Gas and Transwestern Pipeline.

The governor of New Mexico declared a state of emergency on Thursday with more than 24,000 without gas service, the same day San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) curtailed industrial gas customers.

El Paso said Thursday night that with gas flows into the pipe significantly less than scheduled quantities and market demand, it was declaring a force majeure to protect the operation of its system. El Paso said it had used any excess linepack on its system to help maintain deliveries Wednesday and was drawing down storage at maximum levels, but linepack was not replenished Thursday and supply shortfalls continued.

The pipeline asked its customers to try to bring more supply onto the system to meet current demands and make up imbalances accrued over the last two days. "We are encouraged that the increase in temperatures will assist parties in making this happen."

As of late Friday the force majeure remained in effect but temperatures were expected to rise through the weekend over El Paso's service territory.

Transwestern continued a system-wide critical alert Friday because of low line pack. The pipeline said it hoped the low pack conditions would subside and it could cancel the alert, but as of late Friday it was still in effect.

New Mexico's governor declared a state of emergency Thursday due to the gas outage and cold weather. Low temperatures in Albuquerque, NM, were in the single digits Thursday night and expected to get into the teens Friday and Saturday night, but were warming up during the day.

New Mexico Gas Co. said some of the problems were caused by rotating power blackouts, which cut off compressors on upstream pipelines. While some compressors have backup power, others don't. This, coupled with exceptional gas demand due to the cold weather, pulled down its system in some areas.

An employee in the company's business office said he did not know now long service restoration would take. "We have to repack the pipelines. That's our first priority, is to repack the pipelines, and we can't do that until we shut every gas meter off that lost service. So we don't know how long that's going to take," he said. "We're enlisting the help of people from our neighboring states and the local plumbers, utility companies and whoever we can to get [personnel] qualified to do that for us. And fire department...We're scrambling right now."

A FERC spokeswoman said, "We're aware of the situation [in New Mexico], but the company [El Paso] declaration of force majeure is an element of their tariff, which the Commission has approved already." Under force majeure, a pipeline allocates service on a pro rata basis. If service is completely interrupted to customers, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulations require a pipeline to report to the agency "at the earliest feasible time," she said.

In California SDG&E Thursday avoided widespread outages by calling for temporary natural gas curtailments for commercial/industrial customers.

"The cold weather conditions in Texas and southern Rocky Mountain natural gas producing regions has forced major natural gas pipelines, including El Paso Natural Gas Co. and Transwestern Pipeline, to declare emergency critical operating conditions, an SDG&E announcement said.

"The customers affected by these curtailments are large natural gas customers, such as power plants and commercial and industrial facilities, who have signed agreements that require that they cut their natural gas use should supplies run low. No residential SDG&E natural gas customers will be affected by these natural gas curtailments," SDG&E said. On Friday the distribution company lifted the restrictions.

AccuWeather.com said temperatures "dipped close to all-time record lows in a number of locations" over California's fruit and vegetable farm area in the Imperial Valley and also in the Gila Valley and in the lower Colorado Valley of Arizona. Thursday and Friday mornings. El Centro, CA, dropped to 19 degrees Thursday morning, one degree shy of their all-time record low of 18 degrees set Jan. 4, 1949.

El Paso said the Washington Ranch storage field has remained in maximum withdrawal mode, and it has taken additional steps to increase 24-hour staffing at critical compressor stations. "Other pipelines in the region have experienced similar issues with well and plant freeze-offs and power plant outages due to the extremely cold weather blanketing much of the area and nation. We have also been advised by some of our natural gas utility customers that they have had to curtail some service on their systems."

Las Vegas-based Southwest Gas implemented an OFO Thursday due to Transwestern's low-linepack. A Transwestern spokeswoman confirmed that the pipe was experiencing wellhead freeze-offs.

El Paso said starting Wednesday it had begun experiencing operating conditions "that could not sustain contract pressures at some delivery points on the mainline system and laterals." It reported having been able to deliver the quantities scheduled by its market-area customers. "However, until incremental natural gas supplies are delivered by third-party suppliers to [its] system to make up for the loss of supply over the last two days, delivery pressures at some delivery points on the system will continue to be below contract pressure."

The pipeline is asking customers to continue to try to bring more supply onto the system "to meet current demands and make up imbalances accrued over the last two days. We are encouraged that the [upcoming] increase in temperatures will assist parties in making this happen."

Meanwhile, New Mexico Gas Co. said it could not tell customers when service would be restored to individual locations, but the whole process would take days. "The process to restore natural gas service to homes and businesses is the most time-consuming aspect of any outage," it said. "We ask for your patience as we begin and complete the restoration process over the upcoming days.

"The restoration process means visiting each home and business twice. First, every meter is shut off. Then, work begins on restoring gas in the large pipelines bringing natural gas to their area and make sure the system is operating safely. Finally, our crews will go door to door, revisiting every home and business, to turn the meters back on, perform critical safety checks and relight gas appliances."

©Copyright 2011 Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news report may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any form, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.