Heating oil vs. natural gas: Round 2

Why the we-need-more-gas pitch is wrong

ANTHONY BUXTON AND BENJAMIN BOROWSKI’S opinion piece in Commonwealth argues that the region needs more natural gas pipelines because so many residential heating customers in New England use oil for heat, which is much more expensive than natural gas. They contend that customers could save huge amounts of money if only the region had more pipeline capacity, thereby enabling oil-heat customers to switch to “clean” natural gas. They claim that any customer who heats with natural gas will “fall off his couch laughing” at his oil-heat neighbors.

Buxton and Borowski are correct that many more households in New England than in the rest of the country use oil for heat. And they are also correct that right now heating oil costs significantly more than natural gas, although both have a history of price volatility.

Nonetheless, their argument is wrong for at least three reasons.

First reason: many oil-heat customers will not actually have the option of switching to natural gas, even with the construction of more natural gas pipelines. That’s because their neighborhood or, in many rural areas, even their part of the state, doesn’t have natural gas distribution infrastructure.

Berwick Ann

Think of a tree, with a large trunk, large branches, and, eventually, tiny branches. The trunk and big branches are like the pipeline infrastructure; the tiny twig-like branches are like the distribution infrastructure. Putting in place the pipeline infrastructure, without also building the distribution infrastructure, would be largely irrelevant to many of the households whose neighborhoods or towns do not have distribution capability. Installing the distribution infrastructure—all those tiny branches—throughout rural New England would be an expensive enterprise, apart from the initial pipeline cost.

Also, at least in Massachusetts, the way the cost of extending distribution lines is charged to customers can impose unmanageable costs on customers. For example, say that a customer who lives on a particular street without a gas line (even if the next street over has one) wants to switch from oil to natural gas.  The long-standing Massachusetts practice is to charge that single customer the entire cost of installing the new distribution line, even though her neighbors may want to hook up to that gas line at some point in the future. This expensive barrier dissuades many residential customers from switching to natural gas heat, even when a gas distribution line is relatively close by.

Second reason: natural gas is not a “clean” fuel, and its extensive use may well not reduce the region’s carbon footprint.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel. It’s certainly cleaner than coal and oil with respect to a variety of nasty pollutants. But touting it as a “clean” fuel is misleading. The combustion of natural gas creates less carbon dioxide, which is a climate-warming greenhouse gas, than does the combustion of either coal or oil. But combustion is not the whole story. Natural gas is made up mostly of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Some of that methane leaks during the drilling process, and it also seeps from natural gas pipelines and distribution lines. Estimates of the amount of leakage vary widely, raising as yet unanswered questions about how clean natural gas is from a climate perspective relative to other fossil fuels.

And then there’s “fracking,” short for hydraulic fracturing. This process fractures rock by injecting a pressurized mixture of water, sand, and chemicals to liberate natural gas. The relatively recent increase in the volume of fracking has prompted serious concerns that it pollutes groundwater and can trigger earthquakes.

Third reason: pushing the use of more natural gas pipeline capacity than the region absolutely needs seems wrong-headed because that will exacerbate our long-term dependence on a single fuel and, worse yet, a fossil fuel with serious climate-related and other environmental disadvantages. Natural gas now accounts for half of the electricity produced in the region, compared with 15 percent in 2000, and its use for heating has been increasing as well.

Meet the Author

Ann Berwick

Former chairman, Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities
Because we are already expanding our use of natural gas the region may indeed need more of it, especially for industrial uses and electricity generation. A study by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, due out later this month, should help clarify that issue. In the meantime, the region should be helping customers who don’t have ready access to natural gas switch, in particular, from oil heat to new, improved air source heat pump technology or to clean, renewable heat sources.

Mr. Buxton has advocated for additional pipelines for years, largely on behalf of large industrial customers, and he is now trying to increase the region’s enthusiasm for natural gas by bringing residential customers over to his side. But residential customers should beware his arguments, which, for many of them, will prove just plain wrong.

Ann Berwick was Undersecretary for Energy and then chair of the Department of Public Utilities in the Patrick administration.