Natural-gas crisis: A chronology


What happened to natural-gas supplies and service Jan. 31 to Feb. 9 as a cold front moved across New Mexico.

Jan. 31

Monday was a fairly normal day. New Mexico Gas Co. tracked the storm for the second day as it moved across the U.S.

El Paso Natural Gas alerted gas suppliers and buyers as well of the need to prepare ahead. El Paso and Transwestern pipelines are the middle guys, carrying the gas between suppliers, processing plants and buyers such as New Mexico Gas Co.

New Mexico Gas bought 20 percent more gas for Tuesday than the maximum predicted amount needed to cover increased demand, according to Tommy Sanders, the company's director of gas supply and transmission operations.

New Mexico Gas storage facilities in Andrews, Texas, managed by Chevron, were full as well. The company felt certain it was prepared. In addition, it had the top priority as a customer on both the El Paso Natural Gas and Transwestern pipelines, according to officials from the companies.

Feb. 1

New Mexico Gas, still seeing demand increase among customers, purchased 40 percent more than the predicted amount needed for Wednesday and another 60 percent for Thursday. Like other companies, Sanders said, New Mexico Gas was overbuying. "We buy gas a couple of times a day if demand is changing. We run our (demand) forecast models four times a day," he explained. "During this period, we were running it several times more a day as the storm moved in. Every time we ran it, the demand jumped even more. This storm was huge."

A majority of New Mexico's natural gas on a daily basis comes from the San Juan Basin in the state's northwest corner and the Permian Basin in the southeastern part of the state and Texas. But during the storm, Sanders said, "We were buying from everywhere we could."

The gas looked good on paper. But getting the gas physically to New Mexico Gas distribution points through pipelines owned by other companies became the problem.

Subzero temperatures began freezing natural-gas well heads and causing vapor in natural gas to ice up in processing plants and gathering lines. Natural-gas production fell rapidly, affecting supply, according to Bentek Energy Services, a research group. The Waha hub in the West Texas portion of the Permian Basin was hit hard, affecting several gas supply lines, according to Janice Parker, spokeswoman for the El Paso Natural Gas pipeline.

In the morning, the "load pack" in the lines began falling. As the gas load pack falls, so does the pressure. "When it falls low enough, there's not enough to get the gas to customers," Sanders said.

The low was 14 degrees in Española and 10 degrees in Taos.

Feb. 2

At 3 a.m., El Paso Natural Gas learned of rolling electric blackouts in Texas caused by natural-gas- and coal-fired power plants freezing. More than 50 power plants on the Texas grid and units with El Paso Electric serving West Texas and Las Cruces were affected. Auxiliary equipment on El Paso Natural Gas compressors along the pipeline went down. "We didn't know about the rolling blackouts until later on Wednesday, and we didn't yet know how it was impacting the pipeline system," Sanders said.

At 9 a.m., New Mexico Gas asked 46 of its largest natural-gas customers, including Intel, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Kirtland Air Force Base, to voluntarily reduce consumption. They switched to other fuels such as diesel and turned off boilers. "Actions by those customers kept this from being much worse," Sanders said.

At 11:30 a.m., the load pack and pressure were continuing to fall. New Mexico Gas sent out a media notice asking customers to voluntarily reduce consumption. The company lacked any other notification system for its customers.

The company's storage facility in a salt cavern near Andrews, Texas, lost electricity for two hours because of the blackouts.

Transwestern's line, which delivered gas to New Mexico Gas in Albuquerque out of the San Juan Basin, was affected by underperformance at the Lybrook and the Kutz processing plants because of the cold. "We were not getting all the gas we had purchased from up there," Sanders said.

Williams Partners, which owns the Lybrook and Kutz plants, disagreed. "Williams met or exceeded its commitments to the Gas Company of New Mexico," said Julie Gentz, a company spokeswoman. "Though there were some upstream production issues, Williams preferentially delivered to NMGCO during the period of time that (the company) was struggling with supply problems."

Meanwhile, demand kept outpacing supply. Estimates are production fell more than 5 billion cubic feet per day through the week, while total demand for gas across all affected states grew 10 billion cubic feet per day, according to Bentek.

In his 30 years with the company, "I have never seen anything like this," Sanders said.

That night, some customers noticed that their natural-gas furnaces were pumping out nothing but cool air.

The low was 0 degrees in Española and minus-8 degrees in Taos.

Feb. 3

At 2 a.m., pressure in the El Paso pipeline was still falling as New Mexico Gas officials tried to figure out why the gas they had ordered wasn't reaching them. Rolling blackouts at El Paso Electric affected a couple of small compressors trying to push what little gas was available on the line to Alamogordo.

The valve to Alamogordo and surrounding areas was shut off at 2:30 a.m. At 7 a.m., New Mexico Gas set up a call center to answer customer concerns, but the line was soon inundated and officials referred everyone to a website. Crews were dispatched to turn off valves to large customers.

By 7:30 a.m., levels of natural gas reached a critical low point. The company declared a system emergency. "We had very little reaction time before we had to take steps. We had to get some volume off the system, or the whole thing was going to go," Sanders said.

The company needed to remove millions of British thermal units of demand in less than an hour. It had already looked at all towns, including Santa Fe, and established the order for turning off valves. The quickest, easiest valves to get to and turn off were the Otowi valve serving towns north of Santa Fe and the valves serving Placitas and Bernalillo. The second tier included Santa Fe and areas in Rio Rancho, but reaching valves would require excavation.

At 8:49 a.m., the Otowi valve was turned off, followed shortly by the valves at Placitas and Bernalillo, leaving an estimated 32,000 residences and businesses in a dozen towns without natural gas. Southern Arizona shut off gas to 14,000 customers. Less than 200 were affected in Southern California. Texas Gas Co. shut off supply to 1,200 customers in West Texas.

By 9 a.m., the line pack stopped dropping and pressures start building again, and by 10:34 a.m. the system began to reach a balance, with the amount of natural gas taken off equaling the gas coming in.

People from Red River to Española, meanwhile, lined up at grocery and hardware stores, stocking up on food and buying every electric or propane heater on the shelves.

Gov. Susana Martinez declared a statewide disaster. County and state emergency managers set up shelters and food kitchens.

That night, the temperature dropped to a 40-year low of minus-26 degrees in Taos.

Feb. 4

New Mexico Gas crews had to bleed all lines of trapped gas and air before turning individual meters on and relighting pilots. Martinez volunteered the New Mexico National Guard, but the company declined the help, offering instead to hire every plumber and pipefitter available.

The low temperatures were minus-15 degrees in Española and minus-6 degrees in Taos.

Feb. 5

Crews restored service to customers in Alamogordo, Bernalillo and Placitas, and they were still bleeding lines to Northern New Mexico.

Feb. 6

Half of New Mexico Gas Co. customers were still without service. About 50 members of the National Guard were trained to turn on meters. More than 700 professionals were in the field to help.

Feb. 7

Some 16,000 customers, most of them living in communities north of Española such as Peñasco, Dixon, Taos, Questa and Red River, were still without natural gas. Martinez sent another 300 guardsmen and dozens of Albuquerque city police and firemen to help.

Feb. 8

A few thousand homes remained to be relighted.

Feb. 9

Service was restored to all but a few households. Damage claims were pouring in to New Mexico Gas and insurance companies. The Public Regulation Commission and state legislators called for investigations into what went wrong.

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