On May 15, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission voted to grant a protest, lodged by a branch of the federal Department of Energy, that questions whether New Mexico Gas Company is adequately prepared for another weather event like last winter's deep freeze—and whether it could have prevented the major service interruptions that devastated much of the state last year.
In its protest, the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration lambasts NMGC's newest plan for meeting New Mexico's gas needs over the next four years. NNSA is involved because the Feb. 3, 2011 gas curtailment left Kirtland Air Force Base without service for four hours, costing the federal government $8 million and shutting down "critical facilities." But according to NNSA, NMGC's new Integrated Resource Plan "glosses over" the gas outage—which affected approximately 28,000 customers statewide, some for up to five days—and doesn't offer a plan for preventing a similar future incident.
According to NNSA, the gas company could prevent another crisis by adding compressors that would inject more gas into the lines in case of emergency. NMGC didn't examine this possibility in its plan, and instead cited three other improvements it could make, but without specifics about how it would implement them. And NNSA argues that those improvements are not cost-effective for a company of NMGC's size.
Even more damning is NNSA's assertion that if the gas company had already invested in the extra compressors before February 2011, the crisis wouldn't have happened. NNSA cites PRC testimony given in April 2011 by consultant Robert Winfield, who said that more compressors would have enabled NMGC to provide continuous service during the freeze.
NMGC's new resource plan has another problem: It doesn't state any intention to adjust contracts with out-of-state gas companies, which would allow them to provide more gas to New Mexico in case of an emergency.
Jason Marks was one of three PRC commissioners who voted to grant the protest. But Dist. 3 PRC Commissioner candidate Virginia Vigil (also the outgoing chairwoman of the Santa Fe County Commission) says the PRC should have more carefully vetted NMGC's resource plan the first time around. In an email, Vigil tells SFR that the resource plan "falls short of any beneficial purpose to the citizens of New Mexico."
Although Marks argues that the PRC is only supposed to resolve differences between utility companies such as NMGC and stakeholders such as NNSA, he grants that Vigil may be correct that the compressor issue deserved closer scrutiny. He says the compressor issue is a "significant loose end" lingering from the investigation of the gas curtailment that may have been overlooked because "all the parties and commissioners were anxious to wrap up after the somewhat lengthy hearing process" last year. Marks also says it's strange that NMGC never cross-examined Winfield on his compressor assertions.
NMGC spokeswoman Monica Hussey refutes Winfield's assertions, saying the gas simply wasn't available from the contracted providers, and more compressors wouldn't have changed that. Hussey says NMGC has fully addressed the compressor issue in response to previous requests from the PRC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and other bodies, and didn't do so in the resource plan because it isn't required to under state statute.
Marks does, however, say that NNSA should have proactively addressed the compressor issue while NMGC was still developing its resource plan. Even now, Marks says he hopes the gas company and NNSA's meeting in the next 30 days will help them resolve their differences.
Meanwhile, Vigil and one of her rivals, Dist. 3 PRC Commissioner candidate Danny Maki, both say they would vote in NNSA's favor.
Maki says NMGC's assertion that the freeze was an unforeseen situation is no excuse.
"New Mexico Gas [Company] did not explain exactly how they're going to handle another problem, if we come to it, with a gas outage," Maki says. "They just brushed by it, like NNSA said."
Vigil, who also would support holding a protest hearing, says NNSA's filing makes another valuable point about what's at stake if NMGC can't promise New Mexicans continuous service.
"The protest filed by the [NNSA] highlights the potential national security issue that lack of appropriate backup service can create," Vigil says.
But NMGC is resisting. A protest hearing, Hussey writes SFR in an email, is "redundant" given the other investigations of the gas curtailment done already, though she says the company will cooperate with the PRC's decision.
The compressor issue came up less than three weeks after the gas curtailment—US Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, said at a Feb. 21, 2011 congressional hearing before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resource that "supply could have remained steady" with more compression stations—and New Mexicans still don't have an impartial determination on whether that's true. Most parties besides NMGC itself seem to agree that needs to change.