Gas meters at a Boston apartment building. Credit: Michael Krigsman / Creative Commons

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As Massachusetts gas companies start legally mandated investigations into their role in a clean energy future, advocates are concerned that stakeholder voices calling for aggressive decarbonization, environmental justice, and a fair transition for fossil fuel workers are being shut out at a crucial moment in the process.

While the gas companies contend they are committed to soliciting and incorporating stakeholder feedback, advocates say the utilities are failing to fully engage with their concerns. At the same time, the state has rejected advocates’ requests for increased oversight from regulators. 

“It’s important for our perspective to be at the center of this and right now it feels like we’re much more of an audience,” said Debbie New, a participant in the Gas Leaks Allies coalition. “When questions about labor, equity, health, or safety are asked, we are told they will consider them later, rather than making them integral to the process.”

In June 2020, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey asked the state’s department of public utilities to open an investigation into the future of the natural gas industry as the state moves toward its goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The department launched the investigation in October of that year with the stated goal of developing “a regulatory and policy roadmap to guide the evolution of the gas distribution industry.” 

Only a handful of states have taken similar actions. Colorado announced a similar investigation on the same day as Massachusetts; New York and California began proceedings earlier in 2020. 

‘Let’s do our homework’

The first step in Massachusetts’ process required the state’s gas distribution companies to hire consultants to analyze the costs, regulatory implications, and emissions reductions involved in several different decarbonization strategies the state could pursue. These studies, the order specified, should look at the so-called “pathways” laid out in the state’s 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap, as well as any other scenarios deemed appropriate. They should also take into account the input of stakeholders, the state said. 

“There’s been a clear directive,” said Willian Akley, president of gas business at Eversource, one of the major gas utilities in the state. “This will not be successful if it is not a robust process that gets a lot of voices to the table.”

The gas companies have secured consultants and are working on the analysis required. A report of their findings, including recommendations for future action, is due in March 2022. 

That timeline makes right now a very important moment for environmental and public health activists. The report that emerges from the current process will inform the rest of the discussions and decisions throughout the investigation. Therefore, advocates argue, it is essential that there is broad agreement as to the scenarios the consultants model, the data used, and the assumptions made.

“If we are relying on this study, let’s do our homework,” said Amy Boyd, director of policy for climate nonprofit the Acadia Center. “We need to ask the right questions in order to be able to trust the answers at the end of the process.” 

A future without gas?

So far, however, advocates say they’ve seen little evidence that their input is being taken into account. 

Their most prominent complaint involves whether the consultants would model a scenario in which the natural gas system is decommissioned entirely, playing no role in the state’s energy future. When the consultants initially presented the modeling plan to stakeholders in August, no such scenario was included. After vehement stakeholder feedback, a full-electrification scenario was added in September. 

“The original scenarios were all assuming that gas is a major part of the climate solution for 2050, which does not make sense to anyone who is not employed by the fossil fuel industry,” said Caitline Peale Sloan, Massachusetts vice president for the Conservation Law Foundation.

Further, none of the proposed scenarios take into account the way costs will shift as more consumers shift from gas to electric power. As more people who can afford it buy heat pumps and induction stoves, there will be a smaller customer base paying the costs for supporting the entire natural gas system. And these customers will be the ones who can least afford the added cost, advocates argue.

“We need to avoid that future,” said Sarah Krame, an associate attorney with the Sierra Club.

‘There’s going to be natural distrust’

Others have raised concerns that the consultants have not been posting comments and written responses to their website, TheFutureOfGas.com, in a timely manner, as required by the stakeholder agreement. Materials for monthly stakeholder meetings have also been delivered later than agreed to. And the gas companies have not yet organized stakeholder groups focused on policy, customers, and community, as detailed in the agreement, nor have they convened promised discussions on such topics as labor and equity. 

Eversource and the other utilities are fully committed to listening to outside input and improving their processes and transparency, Akley said. Still, he said, it is only to be expected that environmental and public health groups will be skeptical of the gas companies’ motivations and commitment to a clean energy transition. 

“There’s going to be a natural distrust,” he said. 

In early September, a group of stakeholders sent a letter to the department of public utilities, outlining their concerns and asking the state to enforce the stakeholder agreement, require more emphasis on equity, and ensure that all modeled scenarios would meet the state’s climate goals. The state, however, declined to enter the letter into the official docket or take action, saying it is not accepting unsolicited comments at this time. 

The letter was signed by 14 people from 12 organizations including the Conservation Law Foundation, Gas Leaks Allies, Acadia Center, Sierra Club, and Mothers Out Front.

The decision of the state not to step in is more worrisome to some advocates than the choices made by the gas companies and the consultants. 

“I would never expect a gas utility to voluntarily torpedo its business model,” Sloan said. “But we really need the state to be taking a firm hand and ensuring all the planning work isn’t for nought, to make sure we’re not wasting multiple years here.”

Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.