Massachusetts won’t be able to achieve its climate goal of zero net carbon emissions without fundamentally changing or ending its use of natural gas. But climate advocates say they are repeatedly being shut out of a state-run process that will determine the future of natural gas in the state — a process that so far has been led by the industry itself.
The latest development is a move by state officials that appears to severely limit the influence climate groups can have on the proceedings, despite explicit promises months ago that the advocates will have equal say.
When the process began last year, the state initially allowed gas companies to write the first draft of the plan. But when advocates protested that that could lay a foundation for policies that are bad for the climate, officials assured them and other interested parties that their turn would come once the gas companies completed the initial phase.
Now, a memo issued last week by the state Department of Public Utilities suggested the advocates and other parties will not have official status going forward, which would effectively limit their ability to influence the outcome.
The memo has set off a new wave of charges that the state continues to let the gas industry write the plan in its favor, not the climate’s.
“Throughout the process, choices have been made that favor the continuation of the gas system,” said Amy Boyd, the director of policy for Acadia Center, a clean-energy advocacy group. “And now, choices are continuing to be made by the Department of Public Utilities to lessen the impact that stakeholders can have and the involvement that we can have.”
The stakes are high. The Future of Gas proceedings are meant to set a blueprint for navigating the difficult and complex transition away from fossil fuel in homes and businesses — a mammoth task that must take into account possible hazards like soaring gas prices as the number of customers dramatically shrinks. The process must also examine an array of complex regulations that may need to be rewritten. Officials have argued that the gas industry is in the best position to make the initial assessments of all the work ahead, and last year instructed the companies to hire a consultant to help produce reports about the direction the state should take.
Critics fear that could allow the industry to set a course that unnecessarily delays phasing out gas or promotes solutions that benefit gas companies, undercutting urgent efforts to cut emissions quickly.
The memo has provoked so much outrage because it appears to render climate specialists and others helpless in a process bound by rigid rules. Unlike most other state agencies, the public utilities department is an adjudicatory body, meaning its proceedings are typically run like legal cases, with discovery, witnesses, and cross-examination before the department’s three commissioners. The department, in its memo, omitted language that would have allowed climate advocates and other groups the opportunity for an official status, known as “intervenor.” With that status, groups could cross-examine the gas companies’ experts, present their own experts, and appeal decisions made by the department’s commissioners. The memo noted that “discovery will be permitted only by the Department.”
State officials declined to comment publicly. In a written statement labeled “background,” officials said they will provide ample opportunity for all groups to provide input at public hearings or to submit written comments that the state would consider when making final decisions. The state has said in the past that it will take a critical eye to the gas companies’ reports as it moves into the next phase of the process.
But there’s a big difference between being allowed to submit comments that the state is not obligated to consider and having a seat at the table, advocates said.
“The real problem with this approach is that it means the DPU can claim they assessed the plans. But without stakeholder discovery and counter-testimony, it is highly unlikely that they will get to the root of the problem with the gas companies’ plans,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president of the Massachusetts office of the Conservation Law Foundation.
Spokespeople for both National Grid and Eversource — the state’s largest gas and electric utilities — said that they were encouraged by the robust participation from the public and various interest groups in the process so far and that they look forward to continued input.
“This process has been an important step forward in bringing all perspectives to the table to determine what the future of energy looks like for our families and neighbors, and we’re excited about what lies ahead,” said Caroline Pretyman, spokeswoman for Eversource.
In mid-February, the attorney general’s office, which had petitioned the DPU to start the investigation in June 2020, and the state Department of Energy Resources recommended the DPU take a different approach. “The record in this proceeding would benefit from a more thorough inquiry and consideration of possible concerns or alternative views,” wrote Rebecca Tepper, chief of the Energy and Environmental Bureau at the attorney general’s office, and Robert Hoaglund II, general counsel of the Department of Energy Resources. They suggested that should include “discovery and/or technical sessions to enable stakeholder and Department review.”
That next phase of the Future of Gas process is now beginning, following the filing in March of the first drafts of reports by the gas companies and the consultants they hired.
Those reports argued largely for a future in which gas companies switch to alternative fuels, an outcome that would allow them to continue to make money as they currently do, by charging customers for delivering fuel through their network of pipes. But alternative fuels — such as hydrogen and synthetic gas — are far from an easy fix.
While such fuels are expected to play some part in a clean energy future, many experts say they may be of limited use. Some studies indicate they can actually result in considerable greenhouse gas emissions of their own. Others indicate that there is such a small amount available in Massachusetts and nationwide that it is unrealistic to assume the state will be able to use them to heat buildings — a core assumption of the Future of Gas reports.
Because there are so many unknowns about renewable natural gas, the reports are built upon layers and layers of assumptions about how much those fuels will cost or what kinds of infrastructure they might require. There are other core assumptions in the reports too, such as estimates of how much it costs to fully weatherize and electrify a home.
“The way it currently is, we have not been able to examine many of these assumptions,” said Audrey Schulman,co-executive director of HEET, a nonprofit that promotes geothermal heat.
If the end result of the Future of Gas process is regulations that allow utilities to buy and deliver renewable gases, advocates say they fear the state could be locking itself into reliance on fuel sources that either cost ratepayers more, aren’t good for the climate, or both.
“Making that decision at this point is going to be really hard to undo five years from now,” said Boyd. “But renewable natural gas is not actually carbon neutral.”
Schulman said she is grateful the process is happening, but noted, “The thing about this is trust. It does not increase trust to have gas utilities hire an analyst, and not make it as public and open a procedure as possible.”