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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Guv Runs For Cover; Blames GasCo For Ongoing Energy Shortage As North Still Shivers, Plus: Sunshine Effort At City Gets Cloudy 

This paragraph from the Guv that puts New Mexico Gas Company on the spot says it all in demonstrating how fragile political alliances are--even Susana's with the energy industry:

Gas company officials personally assured me they would complete their work by Sunday night and repeatedly declined our offers to provide additional resources, such as National Guard troops. 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. We will work around the clock until the job is done...

Nothing like a sticky energy crunch to bring out strains of populism--in both R's and Dems alike. Susana was much more sunny last week about the Gas Company's initial response, but on Monday she was forced to send several hundred more National Guardsmen to the Taos area to get the gas up there going again.

No Governor is going to take the hit for a private company for that, and that loud noise you heard was company officials getting thrown under the bus.

Martinez was ahead of the curve when the bad news hit Thursday and stayed ahead of it through the weekend, but she fell behind it when she trusted GasCo's promise to restore service promptly. If she had been more skeptical (and more experienced?) she would have mobilized the Guard troops earlier. She said she had offered GasCo more Guardsmen earlier, but the company said it was unnecessary. But the Governor of New Mexico needs to be making the call in matters of public safety, not private outfits that may work to outmaneuver public officials to downplay any failures on its part and protect its investors. The recent Gulf oil spill with BP at the center showed us that.

Both the new Governor and GasCo are fortunate that no one has lost their life because of the shortage or else this story would be going viral. The urgency for Martinez now is to get the gas flowing again so she can stop the flow of negative headlines.

GasCo began to come under scrutiny from regulators and legislators Monday. The company was spun off from PNM a couple of years ago, but doesn't its crisis management raise questions about the out-of-area ownership? And shouldn't a question be raised at the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) about future ownership?

Here's the AP report on the state House energy committee hearing.

SOME LUCKY TIMING

Is PNM happy or what that it secured approval of a nearly 11 percent electric rate increase just before the big freeze hit? State regulators and major users signed on to the agreement Feb. 3. But in the aftermath of Arctic Plunge 2011, PNM is still going to bird dog the rate hike between now and final approval by the PRC.

PNM came with a news update that pointed out that few of its customers lost service as the frigid air hung over the state. Yes, it's news in New Mexico now when the public utilities do their job.

And are we alone in wondering whether allowing PNM to dump the gas company a couple of years ago is looking pretty dumb?

Speaking of which, how about a raking over the coals of the head honcho at El Paso Electric by the El Paso Times? That city and the utilities service area in southern NM suffered through days of rolling blackouts and narrowly escaped a complete blackout. It's a scorcher of an interview that the press here might get some pointers from. A sample question:

Other parts of the country routinely face blazing summer heat and bitter winter cold. What do their generation facilities have that yours don't?

THE AD GAME

And that advertising campaign from the energy industry touting its contributions to the state and playing out in the middle of the crisis pops up on our radar again. One of the energy Alligators games the action:

Joe, The "Energy Advances New Mexico" campaign is funded by Devon Energy, and was created by Oklahmoa advertising group called Brothers out of Oklahoma. The rest of the New Mexico industry is not supportive of the campaign, because while it looks pretty and has high production value, it doesn't ask the public to do anything, There is no call to action. It’s seen as a waste of money. At least a previous campaign established a toll-free number that asked people to call if they see an oil spill, or something out of the ordinary at an oil or gas field.

Devon Energy is the second largest gas producer in the state.

Where is the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association in this industry crisis? Nothing to say?

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?

While the GasCo officials on TV news seem well-intentioned, who are they? Not a heavyweight in the bunch. Not like the old days when we had the likes of Jerry Geist holding forth at PNM and the gas company. Ratepayers could hang him in effigy if something went wrong, or at least set up a picket line outside his house.

Come on New Mexico, let's get louder local voices in this new gas company. Accountability. It's a good thing.

WINDFALL PROFITS?

The news isn't getting any better for big energy as information is gathered on the causes of the widespread energy outages. The Texas Observer comes with this news, which is about as comforting as a Taos adobe deprived of natural gas:

While Texans suffered rolling blackouts (last Wednesday), some power generators were enjoying windfall profits. Starting around 5 a.m., prices in the wholesale market surged to the market cap, $3,000 per megawatt-hour, and stayed there, off and on, until around noon. Prices are typically below $100/megawatt-hour, acknowledged ERCOT CEO H.P. "Trip" Doggett today in a press conference.

There are still more questions than answers but this much is clear: At best, some power generators around the state raked in oodles of money thanks to the way ERCOT has structured the energy market. At worst, some may have manipulated the market to drive up prices...

MORE FALLOUT?

Back here in our Enchanted Land, GasCo customers are asking if they have to pay their entire bills for February even if they received no service for a number of days. And what about the financial damages suffered by restaurants and the like?

Well, never mind that. Will GasCo start stocking their customers' homes with frostbite medication?

FOLLOWING THE MONEY

Mayor Berry's effort to increase transparency at City Hall via the ABQ View web site went foggy recently, with erroneous information about the salaries of all city employees. And even when the pay scales are listed correctly--as they are now--it is difficult for taxpayers to figure out just how an employee makes on an annual basis.

The site recently showed "year to date" earnings for Chief Administrative Officer David Campbell at $168,000 a year. That got the tongues wagging because Campbell came in with an annual salary of $159,000 in December 2009. Did Campbell get a whopping raise while all other city employees were getting hit with a salary reduction to help balance the budget?

No, says they city. The problem--simply put--was that ABQ View was not figuring the pay periods correctly. The IT department has since corrected its software. It is still confusing because salaries on the site are given by hourly wage and "year to date" but not the much easier to understand annual compensation.

Campbell is making about $154,000 a year when the mandatory salary reduction from July 2010 is factored in. Mayor Berry is making about $103,854 a year, down from the about $109,000 he began his term at. (Berry and the City Council agreed to five percent cuts to help balance the budget) Public Safety Director Darren White started at $125,000 and his salary--with the three per cent cut--is $120,640. City spokesman Chris Ramirez says no pay raises have been awarded since Berry took office.

(The compensation figures do not include the value of take home cars that are given to Campbell, Berry and White.)

The point of all this is that the view from ABQ View can be murky.

The city says its salary disclosure method was done with the input of the NM Foundation for Open Government (FOG). It may have been well-intentioned, but the execution does not come off. The city argues, convincingly, that it deserves credit for making a variety of previously hard to get at information available on the site. But if it wants to improve the transparency, it should consider listing annual salaries, as the state sunshine web site does, and not force citizens to fumble around.

OPEN 'EM ALL

How we get there is the question, but that we should start the journey new GOP State Rep. James Smith is proposing is not in doubt:

Every public meeting, every public action…broadcast to everyone. That’s the goal of House Bill 367 (HB 367) sponsored by Rep. James Smith (Sandia Park, Dist. 22.) While there is limited webcasting of the Legislature, HB 367 would require that every government meeting where public business is conducted be webcast. Both audio and video feeds of the meeting would be required and then copies would be saved as public records.

Smith took the ABQ East Mountain area seat previously represented by Rep. Kathy McCoy.

CANALES ANNOUNCES

The Alligators have pegged ABQ Dem activist and political consultant Victor Raigoza as the front-runner in the race to become chairman of the Bernalillo County Democratic Party, but there is a race. Ana Canales just announced for a third, two year term:

I announce my passionate re-commitment and candidacy for re-election as your Bernalillo County Chair to my third consecutive term. Four years ago, I was proud to be elected your County Chair. Together, we made NM history by wresting the ABQ congressional seat from the GOP by electing our first Democrat: Representative Martin Heinrich!

The big blow to the Dems in BernCo county was the narrow defeat--51% to 49% of Dem Guv nominee Diane Denish by Susana Martinez.

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