For most of the country, last week’s winter storm is old news. But for residents of Rio Arriba County, one of the nation’s top gas-producing counties, last week’s storm has not passed. Residents of Rio Arriba County remain without natural gas for cooking and heating in frigid weather nearly a week later.
And another Arctic front is on its way.
Last night, the Board of Rio Arriba County Commissioners summoned Governor Susana Martinez to explain the debacle. My video of the event is shown below.
So how did one of the nation’s top producers of natural gas come to be without gas in throes of a record-breaking Arctic freeze? This is a story familiar to many in the developing world.
Rio Arriba is 5,858 square miles of rugged mountainous terrain. It is approximately the same size as Massachusetts with a population of 41,000. Seventy-percent of its residents are Hispanics dating back to the days of Juan de Onate in the 16th century. Eighteen percent are Native Americans living on one of three reservations. The remaining 12% are Anglo. Rio Arriba is one of the poorest counties in New Mexico (which vies with Mississippi and Louisiana for the bottom of America’s poverty heap).
The great gas debacle began last week in Texas when a huge ice storm rolled into the state. ERCOT, the Lone State’s power company, was simultaneiously unprepared for frigid weather and had not invested in back-up generators. In order to avoid a massive blackout, ERCOT imposed smaller rolling blackouts on its West Texas grid.
Unfortunately, the rolling blackouts shut off power to gas compressors serving New Mexico (which also had no back-up emergency generators) forcing New Mexico Gas Company to shut down service to some areas of the state (h/t miep).
How did they decide whom to shut down? Well that decision was certainly not based on temperature since warmer areas stayed online while some communities such as Rio Arriba and Taos (which experienced temperatures as low as 36 degrees below zero) were removed from the grid. It also was not based on ease of reconnection. Rio Arriba’s population density of about 6 persons per square mile combined with impassible dirt roads and dubious rural addressing make it hard to reach.
Even more incredibly, two of the coldest counties in NM, Rio Arriba and Taos, remain off the grid nearly a week into the shutdown.
Questions about the conduct of gas, oil and energy lobbies had surfaced in New Mexico during the Gubenatorial Campaign. Martinez received unprecedented donations from Texas including a single contribution of $450,000 from Texas land developer Robert Perry and his wife. Martinez had already become the target of questions when she accepted a donation of $117,000 from Mack Energy in Artesia. While the “energy shortage” is being discussed throughout the nation as a product of over-regulation, it is in fact the result of deregulation which has allowed energy corporations to avoid investment in new infrastructure and the building of redundancies into the grid.
So…back to Rio Arriba.
Many Rio Arriba residents have been scraping by without fuel for heat or cooking. Some have lost water as well as pipes have frozen or burst in unheated homes. Strangely enough, Gas Company of New Mexico pegged the two coldest counties, Rio Arriba and Taos, as the last to be restored. Rio Arriba’s closest neighbors, Los Alamos and Santa Fe counties, are the wealthiest in New Mexico. Los Alamos is home to a national laboratory and Santa Fe to the state legislature while Rio Arriba is the stomping grounds of Hispanics, Native Americans and gas wells. Could money and influence have anything to do with Rio Arriba’s predicament?
Newly elected Governor Martinez swiftly declared a state of emergency. Rio Arriba County set up an Emergency Operations Center which I gladly helped to woman as it was much warmer than my house. The Red Cross opened an emergency shelter where we were able to house senior citizens and families burned out of their homes by faulty space heaters. Last night Governor Martinez arrived in Rio Arriba with 150 members of the National Guard.
I hope she can get the gas turned on before the next Arctic Wave hits us with below zero weather tonight.