by Mark Scheinbaum
Angel Fire, N.M.
February 6, 2011
NEW MEXICO COLD CRISIS IN ITS 6TH DAY; THOUSANDS WITHOUT HEAT
TAOS, N.M. (UPDATE Feb. 8, 2011, 7:20 p.m. ET)-- Nearly half of the New Mexico Natural Gas users in the coldest areas of New Mexico entered a sixth day without heat as a new snow storm perched along the Colorado border promising more sub-zero temperatures, snow, and high winds tonight.
Meanwhile, protestors were trying to blanket the city's public spaces with flyers aimed at politicians and gas company officials, with the words "Liars! Liars!" blown up in big type.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez announced this morning that she had activitated an additionally 300 National Guardsmen to relight furnaces and pilot lights, bringing the total to 350. A "rapid response" sqaud of Albuquerque policemen, three hours away, also arrived in Taos and Espanola to deal with the crisis.
On the political front, U.S. Sen. Jeff Binghaman (D-NM), called for a full inquiry into West Texas natural gas producers, compressors, and pipelines which shut down service to an estimated 200,000 New Mexicans as rolling electric brownouts hit Texas and border areas of Mexico last week.
New Mexico Gas this morning reported just 52 per cent of Taos area customers as well as those in Espanola and the northern Indian Pueblos had been restored. University of New Mexico Taos Campus, public and most private schools, and many businesses and public service buildings stayed closed for a sixth day.
The company had sent out mixed signals about relighting gas heat and other devices. It said at first they could only be relit by their crews or National Guard personnel deployed to the area. On Monday, they changed their mind and said anyone who can carefully follow instructions could relight the furnaces and heaters at their homes and businesses.
KOB-TV Weather in Albuquerque reported that starting this evening blizzard conditions could hit the north central and northeastern regions of New Mexico. Wind conditions were forecast at 28-50 m.p.h. with higher altitudes receiving a foot of new snow, and temperatures at zero or below. Some forecasts predicted another blizzard for Thursday, Feb. 10.
While many residents are using space heaters, wood fires, piles of blankets and staying with friends and relatives who use propane tanks for heat, it was little solace that this week's storm would be "milder" than the -36°F record lows which preceded the stsart of the crisis last week.
In Espanola, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican, a Humane Society pet shelter found some workers were as cold at home as the sheltered pets over the weekend. "One worker, along with her five children, her husband and their companion animals, slept in one room in their home with a space heater. The room didn't get over 40 degrees," the paper reported. "But that didn't stop the worker from coming in to help the animals. The shelter was staffed around the clock to make sure the heaters were functioning and the animals were safe. ... People also thought about shelter workers, offering food, homemade hot packs and even a Snuggie for workers who had to overnight at the shelter.
"A lot of people came forward to see what they could do," she said. "They were very considerate," a shelter spokesperson told the New Mexican<./i>.
Meanwhile, at the Taos Jewish Center, manager Beth Goldman posted an invitation on the center's Website and sent out an email blast inviting all Taos redicents in need to use their 30-meter swimming pool, showers and Wi-Fi during the crisis.
TAOS, N.M., Feb. 6. 2011, 8:30 p.m. -- Four days after a man-made natural gas shortage left an estimated 200,000 people in 16 counties with little or no heat in sub-zero weather, New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez mobilized National Guardsman to re-light furnaces and restore heat house-by-house in northern New Mexico towns where temperatures plunged below -36°F. degrees just two nights earlier.
The state of emergency unfolded just as the worst winter weather in 21 years spread across the state, with pfficial readings as low as -36°F., and unofficial ones at -46°F. in the northern tier of the state.
[Texas has begun a probe of the gas and power outages to learn what role market manipulation and a desire for higher price may have played, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday morning.]
The American Reporter estimate of 200,000 people impacted came after no one at the major natural gas utility in the state, New Mexico Gas, would make reference to "people," but only to "32,000 customers," which in the case of hotels may include hundreds of people each.
In reality, "customers" include crowded Taos hotels that had to transfer dozens of guests 30 miles away to the Taos Ski Valley Resort, which uses propane. Office buildings, schools, factories, supermarkets, apartment houses, and many other multiple users are also counted as a single "customer. Large families are common in the region, and so are extended families, each counted as one customer.
The utility tapped 400 gas workers from as far away as Texas to meet fire safety and code requirements that each and every pilot light and furnace be inspected in person as gas pressure in the main pipeline regains service.
Shelters were opened in Taos, Questa, Red River, Espaņola and Albuquerque for freezing residents. In Taos, residents were invited to take hot showers at the town's public works yard, and in Red River to seek shelter at the local fire house or the high school gym. Meanwhile, Taos city officiasls said schools and city offices would remain closed on Monday.
The natural gas shortage was also blamed for conditions that set off a fire just before midnight Friday at the Golden Eagle Lodge in the center of Red River. Fire officials said two units were destroyed and a third was badly damaged in the fire that hit the handsome, old-fashioned resort hotel close to the center of town. The origin "had something to do with the natural gas outage," official said.
News media reports indicated that most impacted New Mexicans are spending nights with relatives and friends, using space heaters (which taxed electric power), or sroking fireplaces and using other sources of heat.
By early Sunday there were estimates that perhaps 80 percent of service had been restored, but volunteers, heating and plumbing contractors, inspectors, and at least 50 National Guardsmen were fanning out from Taos later today to complete the process this weekend if possible. On Super Bowl Sunday, however, the National Guard only managed to field 25 reservists.
A simple explanation for the problem was offered: If gas flow was not stopped before the4 end of the line, the pressure would be too weak to pump in other parts of the line. It's sort of like a 8" soda straw. Put a few drops of water in it and hold it level, and no part of the straw will be full (or pressurized in the case of gas). But bend the straw after just four inches, and the same amount of water will fill the whole four inches to the brim. Northern New Mexico was in the last five inches.
In her first political test since taking office a month ago, Martinez was getting mixed grades for her actions in the crisis. She is the Republican successor to longtime Democratic governor Bill Richardson, the former Secretary pf Energy in the Clinton Administration and a 2008 presidential candidate.
Although Northern New Mexico is serviced by a pipeline from the rich natural gas fields of Farmington in the Four Corners region of the state, a leading Republican official told the American Reporter that the Farmington pipeline became overloaded and outdated several years ago, leaving much of the state dependent upon West Texas gas companies.
Some business news reports suggested that the New Mexico emergency was suspiciously timed with a cartel of Texas producers looking to withhold excess gas flow as severe winter conditions drove prices higher.
However, record low temperatures and snow in El Paso, and even across the border in Chihuahua State, Mexico and its largest city, Ciudad Juarez, caused power brownouts.
These brownouts of the electric grid left natural gas compression factories without emergency power to maintain line pressure. Authorities at first said all gas plants were required to have back up transmission power, but then said "some plants do not have reserve power."
As pressure dropped, New Mexico Gas started cutting off cities and towns wholesale, even alerting sprawling Albuquerque, which also was hit sub-zero temperatures. But mayors of some cities such as the Albuquerque suburb of Bernalillo, N.M., have publoicly questioned whether politicians from larger and wealthier areas kept heat flowing in the largest city in the state while smaller, poorer rural areas like La Luz, Silver City and Eagle's Nest, just south of the Colorado border, suffered.
On Friday and Saturday in Taos most restaurants, shops, and doctors offices were closed due to lack of heat. Referring to Taos, Questa and Red River, Martinez said, "Work will continue throughout the weekend until service is restored to these communities."
Gas company teams and the national guard were schewduled to begin relighting natural gas furnances in the hardest-hit areas Monday morning. Srvice has to be relit in each individual home and business. Taos officials warned residents that their technicians would work through the night, and that they might arrived at any hour from darkness to dawn to do the work.
Special schedules and emergency heat were brought in to serve dialysis patients in area hospitals and clinics, and as with most school districts in the state classes were canceled or students sent home.
After a visit from the governor late Friday, the weekly Taos News reported, "With the extra help, New Mexico Gas Co. President Annette Gardiner expected service for about 25,000 people to be restored in two days." But it may take until the end of the month for service to be fully restored in all area, the paper reported.
"Gardiner apologized for the "tremendous inconvenience" caused by the gas outage, and insisted that crews were doing everything they could to resolve the problem."
Although no local officials had an explanation for long lines at gasoline stations, and alleged price gouging of 25 cents extra per gallon at one station, some residents speculated that should overloaded space heaters cause electrical failures, and gasoline pumps failed, there would be no gasoline.
However, there was another more likely explanation: In one of the most heavily Hispanic areas of the nation's most Hispanic state, the main Spanish-anguage Taos radio station kept broadcasting news about a "gas shortage." People not familiar with the background of what was going on started spreading the word of a "gas" shortage, turning it into a "gasoline" crisis when none existed.
In Taos, the local Wal-Mart and discount Super Save supermarket, which are not on the natural gas system, stayed open, but Smith's and Albertson's have been partially or fully closed since late Thursday.
State legislators who are now calling for an investigation of the emergency said they had been assured before the record cold snap that emergency preparations, proper reserve compression and gas, and contractual guarantees of protection for New Mexico by the Texas gas producers were all in place.
One Taos Wal-Mart shopper, thankful that she had her own propane gas tank and was not dependent upon a direct gas line, said, "Someone should go to jail because of this. The Governor is a Tea Party supporter who hates the President, and would never call for FEMA or national help.
Instead of visiting us from her new warm palace in Santa Fe, some said, she should have spent the night here or in Espaņola with some family forced out of their homes."
Variously listed as the third- or fourth-largest producer of natural gas in the United States, New Mexico's own Department of Homeland Security did not deny that the natural gas needs of the state are now dependent upon Texas companies.
For the latest updates on impacted residents, see this site.