Massachusetts legislation seeks to build on state order to phase out natural gas

Massachusetts legislation seeks to build on state order to phase out natural gas

Climate activists and legislators in Massachusetts are pushing a series of bills aimed at stopping further expansions of the natural gas system in the state. 

The proposed legislation attempts to build on a groundbreaking order late last year that set the explicit policy goal of transitioning the state from natural gas. The bills include measures to prohibit the construction of more pipelines, stop expansion of service into new cities and towns, and encourage the growth of utility-scale networked geothermal projects. 

“The order said they need legislative changes to fully implement their directives,” said Jess Nahigian, state political director for the Massachusetts Sierra Club. “We need to see something out of the legislature this year that moves us towards meeting our legal reductions mandates.”

Massachusetts has set a goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050. A considerable obstacle, however, is the prevalence of natural gas as a heating source: More than half the homes in the state use natural gas as their primary heating fuel. So in 2020, state regulators launched an investigation into the future of natural gas in the state and what utilities’ role would be in the transition from fossil fuels. 

After two and a half years of filings, arguments, and deliberation, the state released an order in December 2023 that many hailed as transformational for its clear vision of transitioning from natural gas and holding utilities accountable for reducing emissions. The document laid out a set of principles to guide the process, leaving utilities, regulators, and legislators to build out the specifics

That’s what some lawmakers are pushing for with the current slate of bills. 

The bills

House Bill 3237 would stop utilities from bringing natural gas into municipalities that don’t already have service. While most cities and towns are already served by gas pipelines, several dozen, largely in central and western Massachusetts, are still without service. The bill would also prohibit state regulators from approving proposals to build new pipelines to import more natural gas until at least 2026.

Another bill proposed in both the House (H.3203) and Senate (S.2105) contains measures to facilitate home electrification and the development of utility-scale networked geothermal, systems that use thermal energy below the earth’s surface to heat and cool  buildings. The legislation redefines a “gas company” as an entity that provides either natural gas or thermal energy, and specifies that the companies’ legal obligation to provide service can be met by natural gas, or alternatives such as heat pumps or networked geothermal. 

The legislation would also create a fund that could be used to help low- and moderate-income residents switch from gas to electric appliances. The fund could also pay to retrain gas utility workers to build and maintain geothermal pipes and infrastructure, creating more secure employment for these workers during the transition away from natural gas. 

“That way they can gradually transition to this new system while not being laid off, while still being able to feed their families,” said Audrey Schulman, co-founder of HEET, a nonprofit that champions networked geothermal developments. 

A third bill, H.3227, would allow any city or town to prohibit fossil fuel use in new construction or major renovations. A 2022 clean energy law created a pilot program allowing these bans in 10 municipalities that had previously voted for the policy. Several additional cities and towns, however, came forward after the law was passed, expressing interest in enacting such rules. Climate activists have long argued these communities — and any additional municipalities that vote for the measure — should be allowed to enact their own bans.

The debate

Supporters of these bills point to the environmental impacts of burning less fossil fuel, but also make an economic argument in favor of restricting the growth of gas. The economics of gas companies’ current course of action just doesn’t make sense, advocates argue. Any new infrastructure built now — when the state has explicitly declared a move away from natural gas — is likely to become unneeded or underused long before the normal end of its lifespan. Ratepayers would be left continuing to pay for an obsolescent system.

“Should we be building this infrastructure now that, as we transition off of gas, will be a stranded asset in the ground?” asked Cathy Kristofferson, board member of the Pipeline Awareness Network of the Northeast. 

At the same time, the utilities recently filed their grid modernization plans, seeking approval to pass on about $2.4 billion in costs to consumers. While these plans are necessary to make the grid ready for the electrified future, they will inevitably increase costs for consumers, said Sen. Michael Barrett, co-chair of the Senate telecommunications, utilities, and energy committee. It makes sense to take steps to keep natural gas costs in check, he said. 

“You do that by making sure that new pipes that take 30 years to pay off don’t go into the ground unless they’re absolutely necessary,” Barrett said. “If you’re going to maximize the electric system you should minimize the gas system. There’s a nice balance there.”

Some, however, argue the push against natural gas is going too far, too fast. Many homebuyers prefer gas for both cooking and hearing, said Emerson Clauss III, a board member and past president of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts. Though some studies have found minimal cost increases, Clauss says many association members find all-electric homes considerably more expensive to build than houses with gas hook-ups. As the state grapples with a serious housing shortage, new policies should not make it more expensive to build homes, Clauss said. 

“I don’t know how we resolve our housing crisis without some good planning and options — and that’s what they’re taking off the table,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have to get people into housing they can afford.”

Advocates generally expect provisions from these individual bills to be wrapped into an omnibus climate bill. Sen. President Karen Spilka at the end of April declared plans for the Senate to tackle a major, comprehensive climate bill, led by Barrett and majority leader Cynthia Creem, before the session closes at the end of July. 

“I hope large parts will make it into any omnibus bill,” Schulman said. “This is the time.”

Massachusetts legislation seeks to build on state order to phase out natural gas is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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