Looking ahead to a future when fossil fuels must be almost entirely removed from everyday life, Massachusetts last year made what would seem a sensible move: It launched a formal effort to plot the organized phase-out of natural gas.
The outcome of that investigation into the future of natural gas is to be a key step in the state’s climate fight, meant to produce the “policy and structural changes we need to ensure a clean energy future” and address the critical questions of “when and how” the state will wean itself from its most pervasive heating fuel.
So, what state regulators did next triggered more than a few angry questions among climate advocates, legislators, and researchers involved in Massachusetts’ climate efforts: they handed responsibility for writing the first draft of how the state will reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to the very industry whose fate hung in the balance, natural gas.
For the first phase of the process, which began earlier this year, the Department of Public Utilities asked the gas companies to create several scenarios for how the state can reach net zero and still provide reliable, affordable heat to residents and business owners. Other interested parties, including state and local governments, and labor, business, and environmental groups, are invited to take part in monthly meetings, but, according to an order from the DPU, it’s the gas companies that lead this part of the process. Only later, once those companies have filed their reports, will others have the chance to formally weigh in.
Moreover, the DPU gave the utilities responsibility for selecting and hiring the consultant needed to develop critical data and models that will be used in the blueprint, rather than retaining its own independent adviser.
Some advocates fear these steps give the gas companies excessive control early in the process, potentially allowing them to lay a foundation for policies that put gas industry interests above the climate, either by prolonging widespread use of natural gas or recommending unproven fuels that fall short on cutting carbon.
“It really is industry driving climate policy in Massachusetts,” said Debbie New, a member of the advocacy group Gas Leaks Allies, which is a participant in the DPU investigation. “It needs to be an independent process in which the gas companies participate but everyone is on a much more equal footing,” she said.
In early September, a number of participants submitted a letter to the DPU listing ways they felt the gas companies were shutting them out of the discussion and failing to adequately consider equity and environmental justice, and asking the department for additional oversight.
The DPU dismissed the groups’ request to have the letter entered into the official record.
And in response to questions from the Globe, the agency denies it has ceded any control of the process.
“The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities is leading the Future of Gas investigation,” it said in a terse statement.
One of the industry executives involved in the effort, William Akley, who heads the natural gas business at Eversource Energy, acknowledged the concern, but said the fears are misplaced. Gas companies are committed to a carbon-neutral future, he said, and to recommending options that will satisfy the wide range of groups that have an interest in the outcome.
“I think the stakeholder process is there to be, in many regards, the check and balance,” Akley said. “Because if the process ends up with something the stakeholders universally disagree with, then we have failed. We failed miserably.”
The current process calls for gas companies to submit their proposals by March. Next, the DPU will solicit comments from other participants and then “develop a regulatory and policy road map” that fits the state’s overall climate goals, said Craig Gilvarg, a spokesman for the state office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
The problem with that, according to numerous stakeholders, is that critical decisions — such as which pathways are possible, and what those entail — will have been already made by the time others get to weigh in, and any meaningful changes would be difficult, if not impossible, to make.
Already, they note, the gas companies schedule and run online meetings where other stakeholders can participate, but the utilities set the agendas and also can choose whether to incorporate other points of view into their plans.
“I do agree that the utilities need to be at the table. But I don’t think they should be at the heart of the driver’s seat,” said the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, Boston’s chief of environment, energy and open spaces.
After a rocky start, some stakeholders said, the gas companies have made efforts recently to ensure outside voices are heard. But some others have remained intensely frustrated about their inability to meaningfully participate.
And then there is the issue of the consultant and how much control the utilities will exert on its modeling and recommendations.
Senator Mike Barrett, an architect of the state’s landmark climate legislation, said the arrangement at least raises the specter of bias, and at this moment in the climate crisis, when acting quickly is paramount, that can be a problem. “None of this guarantees a set of biased results, but all of it raises questions,” he said. “All of it is a bit disquieting.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office had kicked off the review by petitioning the DPU in June 2020 to open an investigation, said it had assumed the department would run it and not defer so much to the gas companies. It also sought assurances from the DPU that stakeholders would have a meaningful voice in the process and the agency would oversee the companies’ hiring of a consultant to “ensure that a qualified independent consultant is selected.”
The state rebuffed the request, saying its order had already established that stakeholders would be involved, and finding that the gas companies were most qualified to hire the consultant .
Healey’s office remains concerned the process favors gas companies, said Rebecca Tepper, chief of Healey’s energy and environment bureau.
“I always say when we’re negotiating a contract, the person who has the pen controls the conversation,” Tepper said. “That’s what’s happening here. The utilities are trying to set the agenda for what is going to be looked at by the DPU, instead of the other way around.”
The gas companies have already floated a number of options, including measures to increase the use of so-called decarbonized fuels, such as hydrogen or biogas, which they say could be delivered to homes and businesses like natural gas is now. That would benefit the utilities, which make most of their money on fees they charge to deliver fuel through their pipes rather than on the gas itself.
But those alternate fuels may be a risky bet because they either don’t exist at scale, are prohibitively expensive, or their promised emissions reductions are dubious. The state’s own climate plan calls for a different direction, relying on supplying the electrical grid with renewable energy and converting homes to electric heat.
“If you live in the reality-based community, you see that it will be a lot cheaper and easier to go as hard as you can with electrification right now,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation and a participant in the investigation. “But if you live in the world of a utility, with a huge amount of profit motive inertia in your current system, you’re going to try to make biogas and hydrogen sound like the saviors that will make it so you can keep your existing business model.”
Another option would use geothermal energy to pump heat for buildings through new pipelines, but even that pathway relies in part on the use of decarbonized gas and existing gas infrastructure.
Until last month, none of the options included a full decommissioning of the gas system. It was only after concerted pressure from stakeholders that the gas companies added it.
“We remain committed to an inclusive stakeholder process that provides multiple opportunities and methods for engagement, generating feedback that is captured and responded to in a timely manner,” said Robert Kievra, a spokesman for National Grid.
Still, stakeholders say the utilities’ full decommissioning scenario includes many incorrect assumptions — such as citing gas prices that are lower than market rates — which they said “undermines the credibility of the [companies’] ultimate report,” a group of 17 participants wrote in an Oct. 5 letter.
In response, representatives from National Grid and Eversource said they welcome continued engagement from stakeholders, and noted that this is all part of an ongoing process.
“We’re all in on the future of gas proceedings,” said Eversource spokeswoman Caroline Pretyman. “Any suggestion to the contrary ignores the reality that we’re working every day to solve our complex energy challenges with partners from state and local government, labor, and the business and environmental communities, among other important stakeholders.”
Of the many challenges Massachusetts faces in getting to a clean-energy future climate, advocates say disentangling the state from the natural gas industry is among the biggest. And the ongoing process at the DPU is emblematic of just how hard that is proving to be.
“It’s just the way things have been done, to look to the utilities to solve problems caused by the utilities,” said Peale Sloan. “In a perfect world, we’d have an independent, government-controlled centralized process, and they would be making the decisions here and proposing the solutions. But in the world where we live — where the utilities have immense political and financial power — the utilities are running the process.”