PRC needs to get a grip

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Looking at the big chill as a learning experience

By Hal Rhodes

At the height of the bitter cold that left tens of thousands of New Mexicans without heat in their homes and workplaces last month, the Village of Taos sent out a plaintive news release updating the gravity of the situation.
“With temperatures again dropping, and communications from Taos’ community constituents becoming ever more urgent,” the release said, “Taosons are advised to take care of themselves…”
Translated: Folks, you’re on your own.
An historic storm had brought much of the state to its knees. It was the kind of emergency for which preparedness is essential in the name of public safety and health.
Yet key players in last month’s emergency were clearly ill-prepared.
True, all of the obvious public officials did all the obvious things officialdom does in emergencies.
The governor dispatched National Guardsmen hither and yon. State and local police did round-the-clock duty. Schools, universities and government buildings closed to conserve what natural gas there was, and in due course technicians, utility workers and volunteer plumbers fanned out to reignite pilot lights.  
But given the time, effort and money, public and private, the brains and planning, devoted to preparing for emergencies in this country, the specter of consigning well over 30,000 natural gas consumers to days on end in frozen homes was inexcusable.
New Mexicans are entitled to expect more of their emergency response capabilities.
And since it is evident that key players with responsibilities for developing those capabilities were anything but ahead of the curve this time around, the least they can do is learn the lessons of a bad experience.  
So what do we know today about preparing for emergencies of this sort that we didn’t know before that near-week long natural gas shutdown?
Two things stand in bold relief. First is the obvious conclusion that the New Mexico Gas Co. was woefully unprepared. We can’t control the weather, but we can prepare for the worst of it.
Yet what we have gotten from gas company officials are tales of rolling blackout sin Texas, laments about the severity of the cold and reports on the unusually high demand for natural gas.  
It doesn’t wash. What the gas folks’ “explanations” for the breakdown in service come down to is nothing more than restatements of the problems with which they were demonstrably unprepared to cope. Left unexplained is why they had no contingency plans in place ready to kick in when the inevitable spate of severely cold temperatures descended upon this enchanted land. Or, duh, why they couldn’t anticipate the high demand for their product when temperatures plunged.
Not least of the questions yet to be convincingly addressed by gas company folks is why they risked their obligation to get natural gas to New Mexico homes when it was most needed by relying on a delivery system plainly vulnerable to blackouts at such times?
What we have here is no plan at all.
Equally vexing is how state agencies mandated to regulate New Mexico’s utilities in the public interest never got around to requiring credible emergency response plans of the gas company.
In 1998 New Mexico voters approved constitutional revisions creating a single major state regulatory agency called the Public Regulations Commission.
It is potentially one of the most powerful state regulatory agencies in the nation. Yet today it is best known to many New Mexicans for unseemly controversies, variations on themes of nepotism and tawdry scandals.
The PRC needs to get a grip. Surely its members are capable of embracing their constitutional responsibilities by requiring viable emergency preparedness plans of the utilities they regulate, plans protecting the public interest they are sworn to safeguard.
Nor is it mindless idealism to expect nothing less.

Hal Rhodes
NM News Services