Utilities need to stop building natural gas infrastructure

Eversource is frustrating the state's decarbonization efforts

THIS SUMMER, the Commonwealth and our neighbors across New England have experienced the hottest month on recordhistoric flooding, and dangerous levels of air pollution. These unprecedented, unnatural disasters have put our communities, homes, and health at risk, especially for those with the least resources to bear the burden of climate change’s devastating impacts. Our only hope to mitigate these consequences is to rapidly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, including in buildings, which contribute nearly a third of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Frustrating decarbonization efforts are corporations like Eversource, whose business model depends on the increased use of fossil fuels in buildings. Despite the clear climate consequences, Eversource and other utilities spend significant amounts of money to expand and reinvest in the fossil gas distribution system and prolong our dependence on fossil fuels—all while publicly signaling support for climate goals and decarbonization. Ratepayers will be paying off these investments for decades, even after we have substantially shrunk the fossil gas system to comply with Massachusetts’ climate laws.

Given this challenging situation, Sierra Club and our partners in the Mass Power Forward coalition have called on Gov. Maura Healey to impose a gas expansion moratorium on the build-out of large-scale fossil gas infrastructure. We also urge reimagining the Gas System Enhancement Program to support only pipeline replacements that address a health and safety risk to Massachusetts residents, rather than allowing the utilities to pour $500 million of ratepayer money per year, and $20 billion by 2050, into the fossil gas system. By pausing the build-out of fossil gas infrastructure and re-examining our investments in fossil gas system enhancements, Massachusetts can change the way gas utilities do business, better plan for a clean energy transition, and protect our health, safety, and livelihood.

Eversource’s recent push to expand fossil gas pipelines into the town of Douglas illustrates its efforts to thwart decarbonization work and exposes the duplicitous nature of the company’s statements on climate. In July, the Boston Globe and Energy and Policy Institute exposed a years-long campaign by Eversource and local Douglas officials to expand fossil gas service into the town, while intentionally concealing the plan from the public to avoid pushback. Eversource crafted support letters, coached local officials on meetings with state officials, and ensured the passage of a Douglas Board of Selectmen resolution in favor of the new pipeline that Eversource would go on to build and profit from. When environmental advocates finally became aware of the plan, Eversource tried to block their participation in the public process before the Department of Public Utilities. These actions are in direct conflict with the decarbonization efforts Eversource publicly touts.

Eversource’s expansion into Douglas is just one example of the company’s efforts to continue expanding the fossil gas system at the very moment we must begin transitioning away from it. In the town of Longmeadow and the city of Springfield, an environmental justice community, Eversource has set out to build a second pipeline in addition to an existing one. The Longmeadow Board of Selectmen, its planning board, the Springfield City Council, community groups including the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, and statewide groups like the Massachusetts Sierra Club, oppose building this unnecessary pipeline. Thankfully, Secretary of Energy and Environment Affairs Rebecca Tepper delayed the plan in late July by rejecting the utility’s environmental impact report. She determined that the proposed pipeline does not comply with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act and requested more information to support Eversource’s claim that the pipeline is necessary for reliability.

As Tepper found in Springfield-Longmeadow, and as advocates warned in Douglas, Eversource did not consider alternatives to expanding fossil gas infrastructure before moving forward with the projects. Such alternatives include using clean and efficient electricity instead of fossil fuels to heat buildings, and energy efficiency measures to manage demand. These solutions are less expensive than new fossil gas pipelines, greatly reduce carbon emissions, and avoid polluting overburdened communities that already disproportionately host polluting infrastructure. Rather than spending billions of dollars on unnecessary fossil gas infrastructure, Massachusetts should pause fossil gas expansion and pipe replacement projects (except where necessary for safety) and prioritize electrification of building heating instead.

With a moratorium on gas expansion and reform to the Gas System Enhancement Program, the Commonwealth can chart a path toward using renewable electricity from offshore wind and solar power to heat, cool, and light our homes and buildings. Companies like Eversource must stop working against climate advocates, transition their business models away from climate-destroying fossil fuels, and pay more than lip service to decarbonization goals.

Vickash Mohanka is the acting chapter director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club Chapter.