Massachusetts may become just the third state, after California and New York, to begin planning for a managed decline of its conventional natural gas industry.

This month the state's attorney general, Maura Healey, asked the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to open an investigation into the future of natural gas in the state.

“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 in a statement.

Space and water heating for buildings is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts, and natural gas meets nearly two-thirds of that heating demand, according to state data cited in the attorney general’s petition.

In other words, if Massachusetts is to meet its legally binding carbon targets, there is no future for fossil gas.

Healey’s office is calling for a two-phase investigation. In phase one, gas companies like National Grid, Eversource Energy and Berkshire Gas Company would be required to prepare “detailed economic analyses and business plans depicting future gas demand in a carbon-constrained economy.”

Phase two would focus on the development and implementation of policies aligned with the 2050 climate target and that also protect the state’s gas consumers during the transition away from fossil fuels.

Charlie Baker, Massachusetts' Republican governor, recently committed the state to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a legally binding limit backed by the state's 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act.

Progress on emissions from heating lags power sector

Like a growing number of states, Massachusetts is driving hard toward clean electricity, exemplified by the 1.6 gigawatts of offshore wind contracts it has signed over the past two years. Far less effort has been made when it comes to weaning the state off natural gas for heating and other uses. 

“Other than California, no state has begun to wrestle with: What the heck are we going to do about this very large piece of our climate puzzle?” said Bruce Nilles, executive director of the Climate Imperative project at think tank Energy Innovation.

Nilles compared the breakneck pace of the energy transition in the electricity sector to the relative stasis in the gas sector.

“Advocates, state attorneys general, all the players on the electric side, have been wrestling and fighting over this exact question, which is: Are the investments the electric utilities making aligned with the state’s climate goals? In many states now, the case is yes,” he said in an interview. “But over on the gas side of the house it’s complete crickets.”

Nilles pointed to the recent increase in spending by natural gas companies to upgrade their pipeline networks. Annual U.S. gas distribution system expenditures nearly tripled to $15 billion between 2009 and 2017, according to American Gas Association data cited by the Rocky Mountain Institute. 

So what are the options?

In Massachusetts, where one out of every four miles of gas mains was installed before 1940, there is a danger of wasting billions of dollars to replace aging, leaky pipes to deliver gas rendered redundant in a decarbonized heating system.

While the attorney general's petition identifies building electrification as the emerging “consensus” solution to decarbonize heating, the proposal does not prescribe how Massachusetts should transition away from fossil gas. Among the options the petition includes for consideration are renewable natural gas, power-to-gas, energy efficiency, and geothermal network applications.

That last potential solution is a clear reference to the GeoMicroDistrict concept championed by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET), which would see individual buildings transferring thermal energy via the shared district water loop and their own heating and cooling distribution systems.

Next move up to the Department of Public Utilities

Attorney General Healey’s petition can only move forward if approved by the Department of Public Utilities. While there's no deadline for when the department must act on the request, experts expect movement.

“While there’s not a formal timeline, it is inconceivable that they ignore it, given that the AG has a statutory duty that’s well recognized in Massachusetts law to be advocating on behalf of the state’s consumers,” said Energy Innovation’s Nilles.

Audrey Schulman, co-executive director at HEET, observed that approval of the attorney general’s petition could provide gas companies with the flexibility to transition their business models, should they choose to do so.

“Gas companies in Massachusetts are not historically allowed to innovate, and they’re not allowed to deliver anything other than gas to their customers,” Schulman said in an interview. “And so, they are unable to change. Because they have to replace the infrastructure now for safety, they are installing at incredible cost a technology the was cutting edge in the 1800s.”