Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Investigations abound into natural gas outages during blizzard in U.S. West

TAOS, N.M. - Widespread gas outages in New Mexico combined with rolling blackouts
in Texas have prompted federal and state government officials to initiate investigations to look into the causes of the disruptions.

On Feb. 14, the New Mexico State Senate voted unanimously to investigate the natural gas outage and its ramifications. A memorial, introduced by Sen. Carlos Cisneros (D-Questa), calls on the state Public Regulation Commission to appoint a task force that would look into the causes of the outage and make recommendations on how to prevent a loss of service in the future.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, announced that there will be a full committee field hearing Feb. 21 in Albuquerque to hear about the outages from New Mexicans and learn more about the reliability of energy infrastructure.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) announced on Feb. 14 that it would be conducting a staff inquiry into natural gas and electricity disturbances in Texas and New Mexico. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversees interstate transport of gas along the pipelines like the ones that serve New Mexico Gas Co.

According to a release from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the investigation is intended to "identify the causes of the disruptions and to identify any appropriate actions for preventing their recurrence."

It is not, however, an enforcement investigation, which could lead to sanctions against utility companies that fall within commission's jurisdiction.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says that such an investigation has not been precluded, but it will have to wait until it discovers the causes of the outages.

Meanwhile, Texas is getting on the investigation bandwagon. The Public Utility Commission of Texas last week ordered an independent energy market monitor to look into the circumstances of the rolling blackouts that are thought to have contributed to the gas outages in New Mexico.

Some authorities in Texas thought it suspicious that about 50 power generating units were offline Feb. 2 while the state's electric grid was experiencing record-setting demand for winter power. Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization that manages most of the Texas grid, said many of those units were offline for repairs, while damage from cold weather forced others to shut down.

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