New Mexico’s Winter Tale: Gas, Gas Everywhere But Not a Drop to Burn

Oil and Gas Development in New Mexico's Permian Basin. Source: Bruce Gordon for SkyTruth.

You wouldn’t know it, but for much of the past week as many as 25,000 people in rural northern New Mexico were without natural gas—a potentially deadly and certainly destructive situation considering the region is also enduring record-breaking low temperatures. Governor Susana Martinez, who was sworn in just weeks ago, declared a state of emergency, sending 300 members of the U.S. National Guard to Taos and Española on Monday to help turn the gas back on.

We wouldn’t know it either, but for the fact that Worldwatch Communication Director Russell Simon’s parents happen to live in Española, a city known mainly to the outside world for its high prevalence of low-riders and crystal meth. Russell’s stepmother Deborah has been sending out regular updates on the situation, which Russell dutifully forwards to the lead researcher on Worldwatch’s Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative, Saya Kitasei.

Here’s an excerpt from one of Deborah’s recent reports:

We are now on day 5 with no heat, during one of the coldest times we’ve ever had in northern NM. We spent the weekend at a friend’s home in Santa Fe, but today we are back in Española at our own home, hoping the gas company will come by and get us back on service…. We are fortunate in that we have a space heater that we can take from room to room. Most people do not have that and there are no more space heaters to be found in the state. We also have a fireplace but unfortunately, we are running out of wood. Thankfully, it is warmer outside today and we were able to turn our water back on without the fear of it freezing and bursting the pipes. Of course we have no hot water, but we are able to heat it on the electric stove.

By now, natural gas service has been restored to most of the households affected by the curtailment, but the governor, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, the New Mexico Gas Company, and other New Mexico residents are still trying to identify who or what is to blame for this crisis during the state’s coldest morning in 40 years. A quick perusal of news sources and online comments suggests several hypotheses: a “perfect storm” of factors from the unusually cold weather to blackouts in Texas; inadequate communication between New Mexico Gas and the state government; over-dependence on fossil fuels; federal regulation of inter-state gas and electricity deliveries; climate change; and President Obama.

New Mexico is not exactly short of natural gas. The San Juan Basin, which it shares with Colorado, is the largest field of proven natural gas reserves in the United States, and New Mexico contributes about one out of every ten cubic feet of natural gas produced in the nation. That’s part of the reason that some two-thirds of New Mexican households use natural gas for heating (the national average is just over half). But, as the events of last week demonstrate, the story is a little more complicated.

Let’s start across the state line in natural gas-rich Texas, the origin of several important gas pipelines that supply California, New Mexico, Arizona, and other areas of the Southwest. On February 1, a severe winter storm hit Texas, sending temperatures in Houston plummeting 46 degrees. Texas power plants were unprepared for such extreme cold, and 7,000 megawatts of generators were shut down just as Texans (similarly unused to sub-freezing temperatures) reached for their thermostats.

Compared to only 12 percent in New Mexico, almost half of Texas’s households use electricity for heating (electricity generated from, among other things, natural gas), and the weakened grid was unable to meet the higher demand. Texas utilities instituted rolling blackouts, cutting off power to, among others, electric compressors that usually keep natural gas flowing through the arteries of the Southwest’s gas transmission system.

What happened next could be described as a classic case of poor circulation. Customers at the extremities of the natural gas circulatory system couldn’t get enough fuel, and New Mexico Gas decided to curtail gas deliveries to areas north of Santa Fe and south of Albuquerque in order to maintain control over pressures in the remainder of the system—just when New Mexicans needed heat most.

New Mexico, as Española resident Deborah noted, sold out of space heaters. Some greenhouse growers who supply local produce to farmers markets and grocery stores had their crops all but wiped out. The natural gas shortages hit poor, rural areas the hardest. State regulators said that very little could have been done to prevent the events of last week. But with the considerable hardship that the shortages imposed on New Mexico, not to mention the damage to property and the state economy, it seems like there has to be a better way—especially if a changing climate means that severe weather events will become more frequent in the future.

So what can New Mexicans (and other communities affected by such events) do to prevent this from happening in the future?

  • Invest in building-efficiency improvements so that residents and businesses need less heat to stay warm. Simple home weatherization measures can lower utility bills and the pollution associated with consuming fuel, whether at power plants or in boilers.
  • Use homemade renewable heat. New Mexico is almost always sunny, but traditional adobe construction methods allow for little of that solar energy to enter buildings as passive solar heat. Innovative architects have found ways to maintain the traditional look while increasing use of passive solar. New Mexico also has vast geothermal resources that can be utilized with ground-coupled heat pumps, for which significant federal and state tax credits are now available to residents.
  • Use more distributed generation. Relying on a larger number of diffuse power sources can increase a power system’s resilience against blackouts. Solar, wind, and even natural gas can all be used to generate electricity in anything from utility-scale plants to basement or rooftop installations—all with less emissions and fewer transmission losses than large central coal plants.

Meanwhile, replacing natural gas with electric heating probably won’t ensure that residents have more reliable heat—just ask the Worldwatch staff members whose homes lost heat this winter due to widespread, prolonged power outages in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. And if you live in New Mexico, switching to electric heating probably wouldn’t even reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The direct use of natural gas in household boilers is much more efficient than using natural gas (or worse, coal) to generate electricity, and then using that electricity to heat households. Until enough electricity can be supplied from renewable energy, heating will remain among the most efficient uses of natural gas.

Still, while Russell’s parents wait for the natural gas truck to arrive and we evaluate the system that failed New Mexicans this February, it’s worth stepping back to count some blessings: Punxsutawney Phil, America’s iconic weather-forecasting groundhog, saw his shadow this year, promising an early spring…

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