Attorney General Wants Investigation of Future of Nature Gas Utilities in Massachusetts

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Massachusetts Could Become Third State to Launch a Regulatory Proceeding to Proactively Manage the State’s Transition Away from Natural Gas 

The following is a press release from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office submitted to SOURCE media.

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BOSTON – Today, June 4, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has called on the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to open an investigation into the future of the natural gas industry as Massachusetts transitions away from fossil fuels and toward a clean renewable energy future by 2050.

“In order to combat the climate crisis and meet our clean energy goals, we must transition away from fossil fuels and change the way gas utilities do business in our state,” Healey said. “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.”

In the petition filed with the DPU today, the AG’s Office recognized the state’s findings that the heating sector must make sizeable reductions in its use of fossil fuels to achieve Massachusetts’s legally binding statewide limit of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

This decline in fossil fuel demand will have profound impacts on gas distribution companies and will require them to make significant changes to their planning processes and business model. It also will require the DPU to develop new policies and structures. 

Today’s petition urges the DPU to work with stakeholders to develop a nation-leading regulatory and policy roadmap that protects customers during the necessary transition away from reliance on natural gas and other fossil fuels.

“The Attorney General has called the question on which the future of New England’s economy, our global climate, and the rule of law in the Commonwealth will turn: when and how are we going to wean our energy system off of fracked gas and other dirty fossil fuels as mandated by current law?” said Brad Campbell, President of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). “The investigation Attorney General Healey has requested is an essential first step in securing the health and future prosperity of all New England communities.”

“ELM applauds the Attorney General’s DPU petition on the future role of natural gas,” said Elizabeth Henry, President of the Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM). “The science is clear that the widespread combustion of natural gas and other fossil fuels is fundamentally at odds with combatting climate change. The Commonwealth has a legally binding goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but new natural gas infrastructure projects are still being proposed by developers – and approved by the DPU. This assessment is overdue.”

“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,” said Charlie Harak, Managing Attorney of the National Consumer Law Center’s Energy Unit. “We applaud the Attorney General for asking the Department of Public Utilities to investigate how we can manage this needed energy transition while still helping to ensure that all families can afford the energy they need to keep their homes warm.”

The AG’s Office recommends that the DPU conduct a two-phased investigation. The first phase should require the gas companies to submit detailed economic analyses and business plans that project the state’s future gas demand in a carbon-constrained economy, including probable revenues, expenses and investments. This phase also should include input from stakeholders on necessary regulatory, policy and legislative changes. The second phase should focus on how to develop and carry out the necessary changes in a way that protects the state’s gas consumers.

The AG’s Office urges the DPU to closely examine the following items during its investigation:

Ratepayer Protection, Equity and Fairness

As the ratepayer advocate, the AG’s petition urges the DPU to consider what steps it needs to take to ensure that low-income customers are not left behind during the transition and that their rates remain affordable as gas companies’ revenue requirements are spread over a shrinking customer base.  The DPU also should consider policy measures to assist low- to moderate-income customers to transition their homes to clean energy.

Planning, Forecast and Supply

The DPU’s investigation should consider whether the Department needs to adjust its guidelines for reviewing gas companies’ forecast and supply plans to require additional data about transitioning away from natural gas as a heating fuel and for meeting future demand through demand response, energy efficiency, or other carbon-neutral options.

Capital Investments

According to the petition, the DPU should examine the investment needed to ensure a safe and reliable gas system over the next 30 years, while gas demand declines. The AG’s Office also urges the DPU to examine whether there are other cost-effective alternatives to traditional gas infrastructure investment that may be better aligned with the state’s climate goals.

The AG’s petition points to similar actions taken in other states including New York, where the state’s Public Utility Commission opened an investigation in March to ensure more useful and comprehensive planning for natural gas usage and investments in the state. California’s Public Utility Commission also opened a proceeding this year to examine the challenges relating to the safety and reliability of the state’s natural gas infrastructure, while the state focuses on achieving its long-term decarbonization goals.

AG Healey is committed to ensuring access to clean electricity at reasonable prices for all Massachusetts consumers.

Earlier this month, the AG’s Office released a brief on the steps the state should take to address the longstanding impact of environmental injustice on Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities. These steps include investing in clean energy jobs that help build a more resilient climate and equitable communities. The brief also recommends improving energy efficiency in buildings to reduce reliance on polluting energy sources and make electricity more affordable for families across the state.

By statute, the AG’s Office of Ratepayer Advocacy represents the interest of ratepayers in proceedings before the DPU. In order for the AG’s request to move forward, the DPU must now approve the AG’s petition and open the requested investigation.

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Jo Ann Bodemer, Donald Boecke and Division Chief Rebecca Tepper, all of the AG’s Energy and Telecommunications Division.

editor

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