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 V.20 No.7 | February 17 - 23, 2011 

News Bite

Gas Hogs

New Mexico Gas Company remains mum on which big customers decreased use during the shortage

Which companies use the most gas in New Mexico? How much do they use? Is it as much as, say, Española? More? And when the New Mexico Gas Company cut gas to thousands of homes in early February, was industry the first to get shut off?

Gas co. spokesperson Monica Hussey says customer privacy rules prevent her from talking about who the biggest gas guzzlers are, how much they suck down, and whether they took one for the team by slowing or ceasing use.

New Mexico Gas Company is a private business, which means it's not subject to the laws surrounding information act requests. Hussey says the gas company asked large customers to voluntarily curtail their use on Wednesday, Feb. 2. "A number of them" complied, she says. She would not discuss who did and who didn't.

During a Friday, Feb. 11 hearing in the state Senate, gas company Vice President Tom Domme said the decrease in use became involuntary on Thursday, Feb. 3, for eight to 10 commercial customers. Domme spoke at the Roundhouse because lawmakers are looking to create a task force to investigate the gas shortage.

Phill Casaus is the spokesperson for Intel in Rio Rancho. He wouldn't comment on how much gas Intel uses.

Casaus says the company switched three of its boilers to diesel fuel by Thursday as part of a contractual agreement with the New Mexico Gas Company. He could not say how many boilers Intel runs in total. The boilers provide steam and hot water for the manufacturing facility and the office building, Casaus says. The plant remained open during the gas shortage, but employees who could work from home did, he adds. Intel went back to natural gas on Friday. During that brief period, it used 21,000 gallons of diesel.

Jason Marks represents Albuquerque and the surrounding area on the Public Regulation Commission. He says there's been a shortage contingency plan in place since before PNM sold the gas company to a subsidiary of Continental Energy Systems in 2008. "The plan was to start shedding industrial load and commercial load, leaving residential for last," he says. Before much could be done with the plan, the gas company was forced to go into emergency mode, keeping as much of the system going as possible without evaluating customers. The whole system could have been lost due to low pressure, so it shut off gas flow to Northern New Mexico. "They had less than an hour to act," he says.

The commission should look at the contingency plan and see whether it is adequate and whether it was executed effectively, Marks says. He also wonders whether the procedures restoring gas service are as efficient as possible. "Given the scope of the disaster, the customers and the general public have the right to know and fully understand what happened and why it happened."

An independent investigation that results in a solid legal record could take months. But that's the process Marks advocates, because if it's done properly, the commission will have the authority to issue orders that have the force of law behind them.

In spite of the public relations fiasco, the New Mexico Gas Company is looking to increase rates. It will likely file a request with the commission at the end of March to raise prices in 2012, Marks says. The commission sometimes grants rate increases to utilities that experience outages because there are infrastructure problems, he adds. But that doesn't appear to be the case here. "In some ways, this will be an unprecedented situation," he says. "The outage will certainly be on our minds when we're looking at this."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
 
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