- Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on Thursday called for the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to investigate the future of the state's natural gas industry "to protect ratepayers and ensure a safe, reliable, and fair transition away from reliance on natural gas and other fossil fuels."
- Massachusetts has set a legally binding statewide limit of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which Healey said would require "sizeable reductions in its use of fossil fuels to achieve."
- National Grid, which delivers gas in Massachusetts, said in a statement that it "welcome[s] the opportunity to participate in an investigation into the important issues raised in the Attorney General's request" and supports the state's carbon emissions reduction goals.
Healey's call for an investigation of the gas sector follows similar actions in New York and California, which are also looking to transition away from fossil fuels. Advocates say the moves are overdue but indicate an important shift.
In January, the California Public Utilities Commission opened a rulemaking proceeding to consider challenges relating to the state's gas infrastructure safety and reliability while it pursues decarbonization. And in March, the New York Public Service Commission opened an investigation to consider issues related to gas utilities' planning procedures.
"We want the DPU to take a close look at the future of the natural gas industry in Massachusetts and make the policy and structural changes we need to ensure a clean energy future that is safe, reliable, and fair," Healey said in a statement.
Healey's petition to the DPU recommends a two-phased investigation, initially requiring Massachusetts gas companies to submit detailed economic analyses and business plans that project future gas demand in a carbon-constrained economy. Those analyses would include probable revenues, expenses and investments. The first phase should also include input from stakeholders on necessary regulatory and legislative changes, according to the attorney general.
The second phase of the investigation would focus on how to develop and carry out the necessary changes in a way that protects the state's gas consumers, according to the DPU petition.
The petition calls for regulators to consider issues of: ratepayer protection, equity and fairness; planning, forecasts and supply; and the capital investments needed to ensure a safe and reliable gas system over the next 30 years as demand declines.
Clean energy advocates say the investigation will consider how Massachusetts can transition from gas-fueled heat and power in a way that does not leave lower-income residents responsible for stranded costs. "Getting off of gas without planning is going to be messy and inequitable," Sierra Club's Massachusetts director Deb Pasternak told Utility Dive.
"Massachusetts must reduce use of natural gas to meet its important climate change goals, but that poses real threats to customers – especially low-income customers – many who can't afford to switch from natural gas to clean electricity heating systems,” Charlie Harak, managing attorney of the National Consumer Law Center's Energy Unit, said in a statement.
National Grid said it supports Massachusetts' carbon emissions reduction goals and "is committed to reducing our own direct greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, expanding on our many clean energy and renewable initiatives. ... we've done extensive work on gas supply and demand forecasting, and we'll leverage these learnings in the Commonwealth."
The most customer-beneficial decarbonization pathways, said National Grid, 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 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," the utility said.
Ultimately, said Sierra Club's Pasternak, the state will transition from gas and that will cost money — with communities that can afford to pay making the transition first. The attorney general's call for an investigation is aimed at ensuring this is done equitably, she said.
"This is something we have to do, and the fact that the attorney general is creating a mechanism to do it equitably and fairly for everyone is a remarkable and important step," said Pasternak.
The next step, said Pasternak, is for the DPU to determine if it will open a new docket for the investigation.