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FERC, NERC Combine Probes of Winter Southwest Outages

The heads of FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) announced Monday they were combining their separate ongoing investigations of the causes and aftermath of the natural gas end-use customer shutoffs and natural gas and electric infrastructure freeze-ups in the midst of a severe winter temperature drop in late January and early February in the Southwestern states.

Various state and federal probes have been launched since the extreme cold in the Southwest (Feb.1-3) which caused well freeze-offs and compressor failures resulting from weather-driven power outages. The cold eventually curtailed gas deliveries to thousands of customers in New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California supplied through El Paso Natural Gas and Transwestern Pipeline (see Daily GPI, Feb. 7).

Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and NERC CEO Gerry Cauley, said they have combined their respective inquiries into the causes of the power outages and the gas delivery distruptions brought on by the record cold snap.

FERC and NERC have been sharing information but conducting separate inquiries into the matter, but all of that will change, and the respective staffs will issue a joint report. The combined findings and recommendations will be presented to FERC and the Board of Trustees for NERC.

Both state legislative and regulatory efforts have been ongoing in Arizona and New Mexico, and a U.S. Senate committee held a hearing in Albuquerque. The CEO of New Mexico Gas Co.'s parent company, Continental Energy Systems, has said his utility's performance during the first few days of February was "unacceptable." Nevertheless, he and others put the onus on upstream energy infrastructure failures in the electric and natural gas systems.

Ultimately energy and government officials said there needs to be better coordination between regional electricity and gas pipeline grids. Interstate pipeline executives said their systems operated adequately despite the severe weather, but there were problems in getting sufficient supplies into the pipes to meet the extremely high demands brought on by bitter cold weather (see Daily GPI, April 8).

NERC's Cauley told the Congressional inquiry that NERC would be reviewing the "interdependencies of the natural gas and electrical systems," including the extent to which reduced gas supplies affected generator availability, and rolling blackouts in Texas affected gas pipeline compressors. At that time, he said the effort would be done in close coordination with the FERC staff-driven task force investigation announced early in February (see Daily GPI, Feb. 16).

The joint study now may shed some light on the lingering question of to what extent the seven-and-a-half hours of rolling blackouts ordered in Texas as a result of the extreme weather caused the ultimate curtailment of gas supplies in New Mexico. Similarly, it may also determine whether gas field freeze-ups in Texas and New Mexico contributed to the power generation problems (see Daily GPI, Feb. 23).

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