Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Fear of System Failure Forced Brutal Choices
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
A gas company worker stood in the bitter cold of southern New Mexico early Thursday. It was 13 degrees below zero as he turned a valve by hand to shut off the failing supply to the little community of Tularosa.
In the hours that followed, the scene was repeated across the state as New Mexico Gas Co. crews wrestled to keep their system's core alive by cutting off its failing extremities.
Company engineers had spent the past four days scrambling to avoid having to effectively decide who stayed warm and who didn't — a decision that has sent human, political and economic shock waves through the state.
Whether the company officials could have done more is open to debate. But this much is clear: Every move they made was trumped by the forces of nature.
Beginning at 9 p.m. Wednesday, engineers in the company's "war room," in a nondescript Albuquerque shopping center, watched as pressure on their system dropped precipitously.
Weather problems had reduced the flow of gas from Texas, and New Mexico's system could no longer keep up.
Out in the field, the situation worsened as furnaces in homes and business sucked natural gas from the system, struggling against the coldest weather much of New Mexico has seen in 40 years.
Eventually, as the cold gained the upper hand and gas lines emptied, crews closed valves, cutting one community after another off of the gas grid — first Tularosa, then down to La Luz and Alamogordo on the gas company's southern system. To the north, Red River went first, followed by Questa, Taos and Española in a trail of fallen dominoes that did not end until company officials made the decision to cut service to Placitas and Bernalillo.
Ken Oostman, the gas company's vice president for technical services, said, "We were very fearful that we could lose the entire system."
Running a natural gas system is a delicate daily dance of supply and demand, said Curtis Winner, who helps oversee the New Mexico Gas Co.'s field operations.
Company meteorologists watch the weather, trying to anticipate how much gas we will need to heat our buildings. Buyers then go out on the open market and purchase gas, which is piped into the system via three major lines — two from the Permian Basin in West Texas and one from the San Juan Basin around Farmington.
On a normal day, pressure in the system drops during the morning hours as demand rises to fight off the cold. Then, as demand declines and more gas is added, the pressure rises again. The up-and-down is normal, day in and day out, Winner said.
Last week, things went crazy.
Gas company officials saw the storm coming as early as Sunday, Jan. 30, as forecasters watched an arctic blast headed toward New Mexico. Sunday evening, according to Winner, they went into "overbuy" mode, putting in orders for extra natural gas in anticipation of the increased demand.
Extra gas was pumped in Monday, and system pressure rose.
Pressure dropped Tuesday as the storm's first wave blew in, but gas levels stayed within manageable levels, according to Winner — dropping during the early-morning hours, then rebounding during the day as they do when conditions are normal.
The real trouble did not become apparent until Wednesday.
All hell was breaking loose on the electricity grid in Texas, with the cold and widespread use of electric heaters in the state sending electricity consumption to a wintertime record.
Meanwhile, large electric power plants unaccustomed to cold weather operations tripped offline. In response, state officials instituted "rolling blackouts," periodically shutting off electricity to different parts of the state in a desperate attempt to keep their electric grid from collapsing.
It didn't take long for Texas power problems to cascade into New Mexico, as equipment used to process natural gas for delivery to New Mexico was taken offline.
But the blackouts in Texas were not the only issue. At the same time that was happening, the natural gas wellheads in West Texas were "freezing out," stopped up by the cold, further reducing the flow into New Mexico.
Charts of natural gas in the New Mexico Gas Co. system show what looks like a stable supply last Wednesday, but that is deceptive. At the time of day when the amount of natural gas in the system should have been rising, it was not, Winner said. Meanwhile, the temperature kept dropping.
The crisis was turning from hypothetical to real.
By 9 a.m. Wednesday, New Mexico Gas Co. officials asked major customers, including Kirtland Air Force Base and the University of New Mexico, to voluntarily curtail their use. Wednesday afternoon, the company issued a public appeal, asking residents to dial back their thermostats.
By nightfall Wednesday, it was clear the dwindling supply coming into the state from Texas could not keep up as gas heaters fought a losing battle against the cold.
Sitting in a conference room across the hall from the gas company's war room Monday afternoon, tears came to Winner's eyes as he described the pain of the decisions that followed. (The 40-year-old grew up in Española, one of the communities hit by the outage.) Decisions in the pre-dawn hours had to be made in a hurry — how fast can crews get the main valves to a community turned off, and will the reduction in demand from the shut-down communities be sufficient to reduce the load enough to stabilize the system?
One by one, valves were closed until the system was finally "balanced" at 10:34 a.m. Thursday, with the meager supply finally meeting the massive demand of New Mexico's coldest morning in 40 years.
It became a race to protect the core of the system, the population centers of Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
"If you lose the core," Winner said, "you've lost it all."
Journal Staff Writer Dan Boyd contributed to this report.