Attorney General Maura Healey, who two years ago prompted the state to begin mapping the phaseout of natural gas in Massachusetts, is now asking it to scrap the blueprint emerging from the process, saying it favors gas company profits over a healthy climate.
”We should be setting the path for an energy system that is equitable, reliable, and affordable — not one that pumps more money into gas pipelines and props up utility shareholders,” said Healey, who is running for governor.
In a 106-page document filed with the state Department of Public Utilities late last week, Healey also said the agency’s decision-making process should be overhauled to prioritize climate goals over the health of utilities, currently one of its functions.
The filing is the latest salvo in a battle that has raged largely out of sight over the future of the gas industry in Massachusetts. Many climate advocates and the state’s own road map to net-zero greenhouse emissions call for radically reducing fossil fuels such as natural gas in favor of electricity supplied by a clean power grid. But when the public utilities department launched what it called an investigation into the future of natural gas in 2020, it gave responsibility for developing the blueprint to the gas utilities themselves.
The proposals now emerging from that process, while they would allow for ramping up electrification, lean heavily on large-scale use of so-called decarbonized gas or renewable natural gas. These include tapping the gas generated by landfills or waste-water treatment plants, for example, or using renewable electricity sources to process hydrogen as a fuel. Utilities have also argued for a “hybrid electrification” system, where homes would have electric heat pumps but also keep gas as a backup.
But advocates say the industry’s suggestions are problematic since they would allow gas companies to continue using fuels that contribute to global warming simply by replacing what flows through their pipes.
In eight hours of public testimony last week and hundreds of pages of comments submitted in the public utilities department proceeding, advocates, activists, and public officials raised concerns that the gas companies’ proposals overlook certain realities about decarbonized fuels — including high cost, limited supply, and that they may not be as climate-friendly as the utilities are claiming.
”Gas utilities have asked the DPU to approve the spending of ratepayer money on untested and costly technologies to maintain their century-old business plan,” Healey said in response to questions from the Globe.
A spokesman for National Grid, one of the state’s largest gas utilities, said fuels such as renewable natural gas and hydrogen can work and be “part of a balanced solution that also includes energy efficiency, hybrid heating systems, networked geothermal, and targeted electrification.”
The public utilities department, through a spokeswoman, said it continues to review the gas companies’ proposals before releasing a final plan later this year. The spokeswoman said it has issued 40 requests for more information as it evaluates the proposals and their underlying assumptions.
Healey’s report was filed as a public comment on the gas companies’ proposals, a part of the process that allows a wide variety of stakeholders to weigh in. The department is under no obligation to implement her recommendations. Even so, coming as Healey mounts a campaign for governor, the detailed submission, titled “Regulating Uncertainty,” appears to telegraph an agenda for retooling the department’s priorities if she were elected. A bill currently pending in the Legislature would delay proceedings until a new governor is elected.
The political calendar may prove crucial to the final outcome, as Governor Charlie Baker will leave office at the beginning of 2023, and the DPU will presumably have new leadership under the next governor.
In her critique of the public utilities department’s handling of the proceeding, Healey echoes the frustrations of many climate advocates.
“We can’t afford to keep spending money on a system that’s built to send gas into people’s homes, while also working to decarbonize our energy systems,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, which also filed a comment with the state. “We have to choose, and the science is really clear that we will not meet our goals if we are still piping gases into homes and businesses in 2050.”
Healey is particularly scathing when it comes to the gas companies’ proposals for large-scale use of decarbonized fuel, citing studies that have found shortcomings and problems.
Biofuels like those made from the emissions from landfills or water treatment plants would cause “a range of environmental and social impacts that are poorly understood,” Healey said in her submission. And so-called green hydrogen, produced using renewable electricity such as wind or solar, is not currently available in the United States and is thought by some to be more explosive than gas. It would also require massive investments in new infrastructure, the attorney general said.
The risk of pursuing such fuels as a climate solution is that “these technologies will not come to fruition and the Commonwealth will have wasted time and ratepayer resources on an expensive dead end,” her office wrote.
She also singles out a state program that allows gas companies to use a surcharge on customers’ bills to pay for a massive effort to replace aging and leaking pipes across the state. The cost of that effort has ballooned to at least $20 billion, according to a report released last year. With climate change necessitating a shift away from fossil fuels, Healey argues, the costs are not worth it.
Healey’s plan instead calls for the DPU to require gas companies to produce maps showing where leaks are concentrated, allowing it to target streets or neighborhoods where converting to electric or other climate-friendly energy might be more cost-effective than replacing gas pipes.
Her report similarly lambasted a request by gas companies for a charge to customers that would allow them to enter long-term contracts for renewable natural gas, which costs more than natural gas. Some advocates view the request as an attempt to fund additional infrastructure and as a foot in the door for long-term state commitment to alternative fuels.
Meanwhile, the report calls for each gas company to file plans with the state to prove how they are aligned with state climate goals and for the development of an “Investment Alternatives Calculator” that would allow the state to weigh decisions about energy expenditures against the costs to the climate and the people of Massachusetts.
Sabrina Shankman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.