Healey calls for orderly transition away from natural gas
Petition raises host of questions that need to be answered
ATTORNEY GENERAL MAURA HEALEY petitioned the Department of Public Utilities on Thursday to investigate how the state’s natural gas utilities should transition to a future where the fuel they are selling no longer fits in with the state’s carbon emission goals.
Massachusetts has set a goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050, and Healey argues the state, natural gas utilities, and their customers need to start planning. The petition said California and New York have already launched similar investigations.
“As electrification and decarbonization of heating increases, the Commonwealth’s natural gas demand and usage from thermal heating requirements will decline substantially and could be near zero by 2050,” the petition says. “As the Commonwealth reduces its fossil fuel consumption, the Department should establish a consistent regulatory framework that protects customers and maintains reliability and safety during the transition.”
Healey recommended the investigation be conducted in two phases – one phase focusing on utility forecasts about their role in a decarbonized economy and the second on the policies needed to reach the state’s emission mandates. Her petition raises a host of questions that need to be answered, including whether renewable natural gas (gas made from cow manure, for example) has potential.
Tom Kiley, president and CEO of the Northeast Gas Association, which represents gas utilities in nine northeastern states, said he had been alerted by Healey’s office that the petition was coming but hadn’t seen it. He acknowledged an energy transition is in the works, but said the natural gas industry is on the upswing right now, not the downswing.
He said the region added 1,200 megawatts of natural gas-fired power plants last year and 52 percent of homes use the fuel for heating. He also said natural gas is responsible for squeezing oil and coal plants out of the market, helping the state meet its 2020 carbon emissions goals.
“We’re going to be around for decades,” Kiley said.
Healey raises concerns in her petition that as the customer base of natural gas utilities shrinks, state leaders will need to figure out a way to protect the remaining customers from being stuck with larger and larger bills.Kiley downplayed cost concerns. He said natural gas is plentiful and cheap. He said its cost is currently $1.61 per million BTUs, compared to $13.65 in mid-June 2008.
National Grid, which owns gas and electric utilities, issued a statement that took a slightly different tack than Kiley. Grid said it supports reaching net zero in emissions by 2050 and welcomes Healey’s proposed DPU investigation. “We believe the most customer-beneficial decarbonization pathways will meet three criteria: ensuring energy safety and reliability, preserving customer affordability and adoptability, and enhancing resiliency in the face of increasing climate-related weather variability,” the statement said. “The Northeast is likely to need a tapestry of solutions for heat, and our research and experience shows us that the gas network can play an integral role, using new technologies to carry zero carbon fuels like renewable natural gas, including hydrogen, or enabling geothermal districts.”