Cheap natural gas is a thing of the past

Not investing in more pipeline capacity looks to be right choice

DEFENDERS OF THE fossil fuel status quo have long tied environmentalists to the whipping post of New England’s constrained natural gas pipeline network. And it’s arguably true that popular resistance from climate activists and others over the past decade has influenced state policies that favor investment in renewable energy over new fossil fuel infrastructure.

But as the price of natural gas rises around the globe, it’s looking like not investing in gas infrastructure was the right choice — not only from the perspective of greenhouse gas emissions but from an economic viewpoint as well.

If you’re looking at a whopping gas bill this winter, you may question that logic. But cheap domestic gas is a thing of the past. Energy prices are up all around the country, not just in the Northeast. The fossil fuel industry has figured out that its profits increase when more of US production is exported as liquefied natural gas, which squeezes the supply for domestic consumers and puts upward pressure on prices.

A cogent tweet earlier this month from Joseph LaRusso, an energy finance manager for the city of Boston, sketches out a narrative that explains how events have reshaped the domestic gas market since 2015. LaRusso cites a report from Public Citizen documenting the steady rise in the fraction of gas production sent abroad, which surpassed 20 percent this year.

According to this report, the war in Ukraine only amplified a trend already well underway. As demand in Europe soared, the American Petroleum Institute began lobbying to replace embargoed Russian gas with North American LNG. Despite cautions from Sen. Ed Markey, Congress was receptive to gas industry interests advocating for expanding exports and extensive new infrastructure to support them.

For Big Oil and its Republican allies, the spike in LNG exports is more than an expedient measure to meet near-term fuel demand abroad. Instead, they see a new architecture in the global gas market. In the wake of the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, the GOP is already touting measures to streamline LNG exports.

The report from Public Citizen makes the time frame evident, stating that the “drilling rigs, pipelines, and export terminals used to facilitate the flow of oil and gas abroad will lock in massive amounts of carbon and methane pollution.” In other words, the export boom is generating long-term investment (and debt) that the fossil fuel giants expect to be in play for decades.

To this point, LaRusso notes an article in Canary Media citing a survey of industry CEOs. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said that increasing LNG exports to Europe would end the era of inexpensive gas in the US within a couple of years.

New England has expanded its gas import capacity significantly since 2015 (see AIM, Salem Lateral, Atlantic Bridge, Connecticut Expansion). But any further infrastructure build-out would only have locked the region into additional decades of piping in an increasingly expensive fuel. With renewable prices falling, it appears that having said “no” to additional pipelines will turn out to be a long-term win for ratepayers.

Moreover, as LaRusso pointed out in an earlier tweet, gas scarcity in New England is a historical fact unrelated to how many pipelines are built. Demand chases supply like a dog chasing its tail. LNG has been in New England’s energy mix for 50 years — it’s not a recent response to pipeline constraints.

Scarcity will be eliminated when demand is destroyed. LaRusso suggests an ambitious program to retrofit homes with electric heat pumps as a means to do just that. This approach would free up more gas for power generation while leveraging the greater efficiency of heat pumps for home heating.

Retrofitting the region’s heating systems will be expensive, but keep in mind that pipelines are also costly to build and operate. So the choice is between spending billions to lock in a carbon-based fuel whose price is now expected to ratchet steadily upward or spending billions to transition to modern super-efficient heat pumps powered by an increasingly greener grid.

Looking beyond the premium Massachusetts currently pays for gas, world events have conspired with the fossil fuel industry to vindicate the policies the state adopted. If environmentalists had something to do with that, we should thank them.

Frederick Hewett is a freelance writer from Cambridge who writes about climate and energy for WBUR’s Cognoscenti page as well as other publications, including CommonWealth.