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In effort to curb emissions, regulators probe the future of natural gas in Massachusetts

The Salem Harbor Power Station was purchased by Footprint Power and turned from a coal- and oil-fired plant into one that runs on natural gas.
The Salem Harbor Power Station was purchased by Footprint Power and turned from a coal- and oil-fired plant into one that runs on natural gas.Dina Rudick/GLOBE STAFF FILE

As part of a broad effort to cut carbon emissions, Massachusetts energy regulators have launched an investigation into the state’s reliance on natural gas, the largest fuel source used to heat homes and businesses.

Officials at the Department of Public Utilities said they plan to assess the role of gas companies in curbing emissions and how natural gas as an energy source conforms with the Baker administration’s goal to effectively eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 2050.

“This order will help assess how to best achieve deep emissions reductions while ensuring a safe, modern, and cost-effective heating distribution system for Massachusetts ratepayers,” Matthew Nelson, the department’s chairman, said in a recent statement.

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The order, mainly applauded by environmental groups that have been urging the state to eliminate the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible, requires gas companies to hire an independent consultant to help the state reduce its emissions to “net zero,” meaning any carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases emitted by power plants would be offset by reductions elsewhere. The order requires the consultant to submit a report about how gas companies can reduce their emissions by March 2022.

The order comes four months after Attorney General Maura Healey urged the Baker administration to launch such an investigation. Massachusetts is the third state to undertake such a review, after New York and California.

"It will allow Massachusetts to plan ahead and make the policy and structural changes in the natural gas industry we need to ensure a clean energy future that is safe, reliable, and fair for all of our customers,” Healey said in a statement.

Representatives of companies that distribute natural gas, which provides heat to about 1.7 million customers in Massachusetts, said they recognize the need for such a review. They also noted that in recent years natural gas has helped the state reduce emissions by significant amounts by replacing dirtier forms of energy, such as coal and oil.

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“Our member utilities recognize they need to be part of the solution in the clean energy transformation underway, and we look forward to participating in the DPU’s process,” said Tom Kiley, president of the Northeast Gas Association in Needham. “The natural gas industry recognizes it needs to increase its decarbonization efforts.”

Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, called the order “prudent.”

“It makes sense to investigate what the needs are, what the emissions profile will look like, and what may be some competitively priced alternatives down the road,” he said. “The opportunity is to now create a transparent direction to decarbonize across transportation, heating, and electricity generation.”

A reduced reliance on natural gas will play a significant role in allowing the state to set stricter limits on emissions by 2030, which state officials said they plan to announce by the end of the year. A 2008 law required that the state reduce emissions this year by 25 percent below 1990 levels.

Environmental advocates said they were cautiously optimistic about the investigation, noting that fossil fuels used to heat homes and buildings account for about a third of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Massachusetts must plan for a complete transition away from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean, renewable sources of energy,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts. “To the extent that this order accelerates our progress in that direction and creates a long-term plan for getting off of gas, it’s a good thing.”

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Others worried that the state’s timeline was too slow, given the growing impact of climate change.

“This deadline actually pushes off the work that should be happening right now,” said Deb Pasternak, director of Sierra Club Massachusetts. “The obvious first step is to stop building new buildings powered by gas . . . and also to start doing cost-benefit analyses for all gas pipeline repair versus electrification. These two policies could be put in place today, and in addition to immediately starting to lower emissions, would significantly save money.”

Amy Boyd, director of policy at the Acadia Center in Boston, said she worried the order contained vague language and wouldn’t allow sufficient input from the public.

“The consumers of this state deserve to have a process that is independent of utility control, deliberate, transparent, and values their voices, especially the environmental justice stakeholders whose neighborhoods are the most impacted,” she said. “Massachusetts has to face the fact that continued use of fossil fuels like natural gas is incompatible with the Commonwealth’s climate goals.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.