While New Mexico Gas Co. was strongly criticized for its alleged lack of preparedness, the interdependence of natural gas and electricity infrastructure drew much attention during a U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee informational hearing held last Monday in Albuquerque, NM.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the committee, called the hearing in the wake of extreme cold in the Southwest (Feb. 2-4) that caused well freeze-offs, compressor failures and power outages, which resulted in the curtailment of gas deliveries to thousands of customers in New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California supplied through El Paso Natural Gas and Transwestern Pipeline (see NGI, Feb. 7).

Representatives for the two major interstate pipelines involved described sub-freezing temperatures that caused unprecedented problems at both ends of their infrastructure — record-high demand for gas while frozen wellhead and processing equipment prevented added volumes of gas from getting to market.

The New Mexico utility was accused of mishandling the crisis by a variety of public officials, and interstate gas pipeline and federal/state energy officials indicated that ultimately there needs to be closer coordination between the gas and power infrastructure in preparing for and responding to severe weather conditions. The lack of “winterization” by both power plants and gas processing facilities appeared to contribute to the situation that caused New Mexico Gas to curtail more than 27,000 of its customers in the northern, rural parts of the state, some taking up to five days to get service restored.

George Schreiber, CEO for the utility’s parent company, Continental Energy Systems, agreed that the utility’s performance was “unacceptable,” but he put the onus on upstream energy infrastructure failures in the electric and natural gas systems. Schreiber said there needs to be better coordination between the regional electricity and gas pipeline grids, and he plans to reiterate this next month in testimony to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC).

“Recent extreme weather conditions restricted supplies flowing into the pipeline at the very time that shippers were requesting dramatic increases in supplies,” said Shelley Corman, a senior vice president at Transwestern, which has 48 receipt points on its pipeline in New Mexico, with 10 of those going to New Mexico Gas Co.

Janice Parker, vice president for customer service with El Paso’s Western Pipeline Group, said that early in the morning on Feb. 2, El Paso noticed that it was not getting the supplies it needed from the Permian Basin. At the time, El Paso’s suppliers were reporting rolling blackouts and freezeoffs at processing sites that were preventing them from sending their gas to the pipeline.

“At the same time, because of the extreme cold weather, our customers were taking much more gas than was coming into our pipelines,” Parker said. As a result, the southern pipeline system’s linepack increasingly showed signs of depletion, first in the El Paso, TX, area, then in the Alamogordo, NM, area and finally around Tucson, AZ, she said.

Overall, El Paso was able to deliver all of the gas that its suppliers were able to get into its pipelines, along with another 20% in added supplies that it obtained, Parker said. While the pipeline did lose electrical power to some of its compressor stations due to the cold weather, it had backup power supplies and was able to keep all of its stations operating, she said.

The committee heard testimony from two New Mexico members of the House of Representatives and several local city, business and Native American officials, along with representatives of the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

“We have no confidence in New Mexico Gas Co.,” said Jack Torres, mayor of Bernalillo, NM. “I felt their attitude toward Bernalillo was condescending; and [the utility] stepped on my city.” The utility’s performance worsened during the crisis, said Torres, who alleged that the utility personally berated him at times during the ordeal. Alice Lucero, the mayor of Espanola, NM, echoed the criticisms of the utility’s response to the severe freeze.

NERC CEO Gerry Cauley said his organization will 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. The NERC effort will be performed in close coordination with a FERC investigation announced earlier this month, Cauley said (see NGI, Feb. 21).

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