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Natural gas crunch leaves thousands shivering in Southwest

Dennis Carroll

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Thousands of New Mexicans and others across the Southwest were left huddling against bitter cold on Thursday after supplies of natural gas were cut off to their communities.

Frigid weather throughout the region knocked out natural gas production equal to nearly 5 percent of daily nationwide demand as wells froze and plunging temperatures caused problems for processing plants.

The crunch was exacerbated by unusually high heating demands. Production at the wellhead was shut off at facilities across Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez declared a state of emergency and called on residents to lower thermostats, pile on warm clothing and forgo the use of unnecessary appliances for the next 24 hours to conserve energy.

Emergency shelters were in operation around the state, and nonessential state workers were sent home. Many schools dismissed students early.

The New Mexico Gas Co. said high demand prompted by the extreme cold -- single digits in many areas -- coupled with power outages in neighboring Texas were to blame.

"States across the Southwest are experiencing similar situations. Our pipeline system is intact, and our crews are working to minimize the impact of this temporary situation," the utility said in a statement.

Supplies were cut in New Mexico communities from Tularosa in the south to Taos in the north, including parts of Albuquerque and numerous Native American pueblos, disrupting service to more than 25,000 customers overall, the gas company said. As of midday, the capital city of Santa Fe had not been affected.

However, residents there and in other communities awoke to frozen water pipes.

In Arizona, natural gas service was cut to some 14,000 homes and businesses in the Rita Ranch and eastern foothills areas of Tucson due to the cold weather, the Southwest Gas company said.

There were no estimates as to when full service might be restored.

(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor, Jeanine Prezioso and Joe Silha; Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)