At 8:15 am on Feb. 3, Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres learned that his town had no natural gas.
“There was no prior notification; it was essentially, ‘You have no gas,’” Torres testified Feb. 21 in an Albuquerque field hearing before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Torres, along with thousands of other New Mexicans, quickly learned the now-familiar story of manifest failings in the state’s natural gas delivery system. What they didn’t hear about is where much of that natural gas went: to Public Service Company of New Mexico.
In accordance with federal rules, New Mexico Gas Company must publicly report the amount of natural gas it receives and delivers to various entities.
SFR’s analysis of that data shows that even as Gov. Susana Martinez instructed New Mexicans on Feb. 3 to turn off their heaters and stoves to conserve gas for the state of emergency, PNM was scheduled to receive approximately 47,880 dekatherms—enough to heat approximately 68,000 homes for the entire winter—from New Mexico Gas Company.
PNM Director of Communications Valerie Smith says approximately half of that gas was returned to NMGC to help with the crisis.
She says PNM never actually operated the Delta-Person Generating Station, on Albuquerque’s south side.
But the delivery of precious natural gas to the other power plant, Reeves Generating Station, has state Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Los Alamos, incensed.
“You’ve got to remember that New Mexico Gas Company, now owned by an out-of-state investment firm, was purchased from PNM,” Cisneros says. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit that they would leverage gas to ensure that certain entities in certain communities were not left out in the cold.”
Cisneros’ district includes Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Taos counties—the latter two of which were among the most heavily impacted during the crisis. He has led the Legislature’s campaign for accountability—both by petitioning New Mexico Attorney General Gary King to conduct an investigation and by introducing a bill, HB 452, to establish a task force (and fund it, to the tune of $50,000) to investigate why the gas crisis fell heavily on some areas of the state while sparing others.
Cisneros says that question is one of many surrounding the gas crisis. Two of the primary concerns raised in the Feb. 21 Senate hearing centered around a lack of notification and NMGC’s failure to communicate with residents and municipalities about the ongoing shortages.
When SFR asked NMGC to provide information on where its gas actually went on Feb. 3, NMGC spokeswoman Monica Hussey declined, citing “customer privacy rules.” Hussey also says she can’t explain why there were such large spikes in scheduled natural gas delivery to PNM during the crisis (see chart in main image).
According to Smith, PNM had been monitoring since late January the winter storm that caused the gas crisis and, on Feb. 2, had scheduled a delivery of extra gas in order to run the Reeves plant “at a low level to keep the grid stable.”
Both of PNM’s Albuquerque power plants, Delta-Person and Reeves, are auxiliary, Smith says, and are mostly only used in the summer.
“They are peaking plants and in New Mexico, the peak is usually in the summer,” Smith says.
Smith explains that PNM feared a similar chain of events to the one that occurred in Texas and, ultimately, triggered New Mexico’s crisis: Subzero temperatures forced some Texas power plants offline, causing rolling blackouts that stymied delivery of natural gas through compressor-powered pipelines.
“We saw what was happening in Texas, and we knew we needed to do everything we could to prevent outages on our system,” Smith says. “We immediately began procuring supply to keep generation running.”
Smith says natural-gas-powered plants are the only kind that can be quickly started and stopped to meet peak electric demand—which resulted not only from the cold, but was also exacerbated by the gas shortage as New Mexico residents turned to electric space heaters and other resources.
“We were seeing usage that was about 20 to 25 percent higher than normal for this time of year because of the extreme cold,” Smith says. “It was a definite balancing act because the only thing worse than having rolling gas outages would be to add rolling electric outages on top of that—so we were mindful of conserving natural gas, but also [of] keeping the grid stable so that we didn’t have folks in a double jeopardy.”
Smith maintains, however, that PNM’s use of natural gas had nothing to do with the crisis itself.
“That was completely unrelated,” she says, “because at least what New Mexico Gas Company has said is that it was a pressure issue on their suppliers.”
Still, PNM can count itself as the only recipient of natural gas on NMGC’s northwest system—at least according to the filings on the company’s website—during New Mexico’s state of emergency. (Hussey says NMGC is not required to report receipts and deliveries of natural gas in its southern section.) Another recipient scheduled for deliveries in the days before the crisis, for instance, was zeroed out on Feb. 2 and did not resume receiving gas from NMGC until Feb. 11.
The Reeves plant burned a little less than 20,000 dekatherms on Feb. 3—more than the approximately 17,000 dekatherms it burns per day in the summer.
But Smith says that, during the summer, PNM will usually run an auxiliary plant only for a few hours—whereas during the gas crisis, Reeves was kept operating at low levels throughout the day.
Regardless, Cisneros says the lingering questions about how decisions were made on where to send gas—and, for that matter, power—illuminate the need for greater transparency in utility operation.
“That’s the essence of the whole debate with the gas company,” Cisneros says. “We want to know why [NMGC] disconnected the communities they did. To this day, they haven’t had a legitimate answer.”
He’s not the only one searching. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission have each pledged to conduct their own investigations. The PRC, according to District 1 Commissioner Jason Marks, plans to hire an independent consultant to provide expertise on the particulars of natural gas transmission—a $10,000-$12,000 process that will include investigations into the electric-utility side of the crisis.
When asked whether NMGC had offered to help pay for any of the investigations, Hussey replied, “We are fully participating in any investigations related to the outage.”
She declined to explain further.