New Mexico regulators on Thursday indicated they will launch a "formal and thorough" investigation of the causes for the recent natural gas service interruptions for customers of New Mexico Gas Co. The state Public Regulation Commission (PRC) is drafting an order to start the probe at the urging of its chairman, Patrick Lyons.

The PRC expects to finalize its order within days and start the investigation, a regulatory commission spokesperson said. The final "structure and format" for the investigation will be put in place when the PRC meets on Tuesday.

The investigation is supposed to examine all of the events leading up to service cutoffs affecting more than 40,000 residents, leaving many of them without gas utility service for several days starting Feb. 2.

New Mexico Gas customers were among the hardest hit when extreme cold swept through the Southwest in the first days of February, causing well freeze-offs and compressor failures due to power outages (see Daily GPI, Feb. 7). The severe weather 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 Feb. 3 with more than 24,000 without gas service, the same day that Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric curtailed industrial gas customers.

As a first step in the New Mexico PRC's investigation, the regulators intend to direct the commission's acting chief of staff to prepare an agreement to retain an independent third-party to conduct the probe and provide a report regarding the causes of the service disruptions, the PRC spokesperson said. The PRC safety bureau and utility division staff will assist in the investigation.

Lyons' call for the third-party investigation was supported by the full five-member PRC on Thursday, along with utility representatives who attended and spoke at the commission meeting.

Investigators will examine "whether New Mexico Gas' response to the situation was appropriate," said the spokesperson, noting whether the gas utility's decisions regarding which customers were curtailed and for how long were appropriate will be investigated. And they will look at what can be done in the future to make sure similar curtailments don't happen again.

Calling for a prompt and thorough investigation, Lyons said the outside investigative firm is needed to ensure that the state gets "the most comprehensive and objective information possible." Regulators will also take into consideration the utility's input regarding the curtailments, along with input from its own staff, the state attorney general and interested parties.

"There were far too many people adversely affected by this situation, and we want to ensure that New Mexicans never have to endure this kind of hardship again," Lyons said.

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