FERC on Monday launched a staff inquiry into the energy disruptions that occurred across the Southwest early this month as a result of a severe cold snap that affected energy operations from Southern California to Texas from the wellhead to the burnertip (see Daily GPI, Feb. 7).

Staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was directed to look into the causes and future prevention of the outages and disruptions like the ones that took place Feb. 1-4.

"The inquiry will seek to identify the causes of the disruptions and to identify any appropriate actions for preventing their recurrence," said a FERC spokesperson. She stressed that the probe is not an enforcement investigation, and any decision to initiate that type of investigation would come later.

FERC acknowledged that a number of states already had initiated or are considering their own investigations, and it said the federal fact-finding effort would coordinate closely with those states.

Last Thursday the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) said it would launch a "formal and thorough" investigation of the causes for the service interruptions experienced by customers of New Mexico Gas Co. (see Daily GPI, Feb. 14). The "structure and format" for the investigation is to be put in place when the PRC meets on Tuesday. New Mexico 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 service for several days starting Feb. 2.

Customers lost gas service in parts of Texas, too, and bulk power suppliers in that state and Arizona experienced what FERC characterized as "a significant number of outages of generating facilities" during a high-demand period.

"We are not at this time initiating an investigation into whether violations of applicable regulations, requirements or standards under the commission's jurisdiction may have occurred," FERC said in its order. "Our priority at the moment is to gather the relevant facts, identify the problems and fix them to the extent possible."

In Texas investigations are under way, too.

Recently Ron Kitchens, chairman of the Texas Energy Reliability Council, spoke to the Railroad Commission of Texas on what caused significant disruptions in the Texas energy patch, starting at wellheads and running downstream to transmission pipelines, power generators and natural gas utilities (see Daily GPI, Feb. 9).

While customers with interruptible delivery contracts -- including power generators -- saw their gas supplies curtailed, Kitchens said he was not aware of any entity holding a noninterruptible contract that did not get its gas.

Also in Texas, the state's Public Utility Commission has directed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to investigate power outages related to the cold snap (see Daily GPI, Feb. 8).

FERC acknowledged that the North American Electric Reliability Corp., for which it has oversight, has launched an analysis of the bulk power system problems. The five-member commission's role is broader because it also has the responsibilities and authorities inherent in the Natural Gas Act and Natural Gas Policy Act, which "apply here beyond and apart from any effects on the bulk power system," FERC said.

Because of "wide-ranging circumstances," FERC said it would designate a staff task force to conduct its inquiry.

During a meeting earlier in the month, with a committee of the New Mexico House, the PRC, pipelines and utilities, there was brief discussion about the possibility of keeping New Mexico gas bound for export inside the state during times of crisis; however, it was quickly noted that such a measure is a subject for federal regulators.

Early February's cold weather conditions in Texas and southern Rocky Mountain natural gas producing regions at one point forced major natural gas pipelines, including El Paso Natural Gas Co. and Transwestern Pipeline, to declare emergency critical operating conditions, according to Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E), which had to curtail its major industrial customers.

The utility said the customers affected by these curtailments were large gas customers, such as power plants and commercial and industrial facilities that have signed agreements requiring that they cut their gas use should supplies run low. No residential SDG&E natural gas customers were affected and on Feb. 4 the distribution company lifted the restrictions.

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