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Utility tells lawmakers entire system could have been lost

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By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Natural gas service was cut off to thousands of New Mexicans last week because utility officials feared losing control over the company's distribution system and having potentially dangerous uncontrolled outages across the state, lawmakers were told Monday.

In testimony to a legislative committee, New Mexico Gas Co. officials said the company faced a rapid drop in gas pressure in its lines because a transmission pipeline couldn't provide gas supplies that had been ordered. The pipeline couldn't deliver the gas because of low pressure in its lines. That was caused by electrical power outages in Texas, which disrupted gas supplies from processing plants and wells.

"The system was crashing so rapidly and with such an amount, that we were fearful that we would have lost a large, large portion of Albuquerque and surrounding areas," said Ken Oostman, the utility's vice president for technical services. "We were very fearful that we would lose the entire system."

Had the utility not shut off service to areas of the state, he told lawmakers, gas pressure would have continued to drop in distribution lines and uncontrolled outages would have happened in homes and businesses. That creates dangerous conditions because pilot lights on furnaces go off and there's a potential for gas to fill a building.

More than 30,000 New Mexicans initially were left without gas. By Monday evening, thousands of residents in the Taos and Espanola areas remained without gas service.

When questioned by legislators, Tom Domme, the company's general counsel and vice president, said he couldn't guarantee when all service will be restored. About 700 workers were going to homes to reignite pilot lights and ensure it's safe to restore gas service.

Gov. Susana Martinez on Monday afternoon sent another 300 National Guard troops and airmen along with nearly five dozen Albuquerque and state police officers to Taos and Espanola to help restore service. Members of the Albuquerque Fire Department were also on stand-by for deployment Tuesday morning if necessary.

Martinez said in a statement that gas company officials had assured her they would complete their work by Sunday night and repeatedly declined the state's offer to provide additional resources.

"It is unacceptable that so many are still without power in Taos and Espanola, and that's why we are mobilizing additional personnel to expedite the process and ensure New Mexicans are not going without heat," she said. "We will work around the clock until the job is done."

Another concern was that more winter weather was expected to hit northern New Mexico on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Earlier Monday at the State Capitol, the utility met with sharp criticism from legislators in areas still without gas.

"There is no confidence in your company," said Rep. Debbie Rodella, an Espanola Democrat.

However, other lawmakers said the unusually cold temperatures created problems throughout the gas production and transmission system.

"We're unfair if we place all the blame on the utility that delivers the product to the customer because they're just one part of the total system," said Rep. Don Bratton, R-Hobbs.

Production is stopped at wells when it's extremely cold, he said, because moisture in the gas can freeze and rupture lines, causing environmental contamination.

Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, said a "weak link" in the system appeared to be the lack of backup electrical generating equipment at processing plants, which gather gas from wells and pump it into large transmission pipelines that move gas to utilities.

Utility officials said they had to act fast Thursday morning to reduce demand on their system. They previously had asked large industrial customers to voluntarily reduce demand. The company cut off a northern line, which serves Espanola, Red River, Taos and Questa, because that could be done quickly at one valve near Espanola. Another valve allowed the company to stop supplies to Bernalillo and Placitas near Albuquerque.

Also shut off was a distribution line to southern New Mexico communities, including Alamogordo and Tularosa. The system stabilized and that prevented service cutoffs in Albuquerque and other areas, lawmakers were told.