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Berkshire Gas sees natural gas as part of its plan to meet state climate goals. Some observers disagree

rosemary wessel speaks into security gate with protestors (copy)

Protesters visit the Pittsfield headquarters of Berkshire Gas in November to push the company to move away from fossil fuels as it outlines its plan for helping the state meet climate goals.

PITTSFIELD — Asked how it will help meet Massachusetts climate goals, Berkshire Gas said natural gas will remain a key part of its plans.

Consultants contracted by Berkshire Gas and other Massachusetts utilities released a draft report Feb. 15, detailing possible strategies.

Based on that report and the stakeholder process, Berkshire Gas concluded in a Feb. 15 document that “all scenarios taken together, including qualitative and feasibility considerations, envision an important role for natural gas in the energy transition.”

Observers who have followed the process continue to voice one central concern. While the changes being floated continue to rely on burning gas, they wanted the process, which Attorney General Maura Healey requested in June 2020, to look at how companies could shift to a business model built around electrification.

The public has until Tuesday to comment for input to be reflected in the final report that is due March 18. Comments still can be sent after Tuesday, but they will not influence the final report.

Berkshire Gas lists its proposals as consumer education, energy efficiency, electrification, low-carbon fuel growth, renewable electricity, hydrogen and renewable natural gas and developing technologies.

The reliance on “decarbonized” gases, which refer to synthetic natural gas, hydrogen and renewable natural gas, gives the appearance of a dog-and-pony show to Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team.

“You can’t call something ‘decarbonized’ that’s still got carbon in it,” Winn said. “It’s as bad as calling it ‘natural’ gas to make it sound good.”

Berkshire Gas sees the sources outlined in the report as clean energy options that “deserve rightful and thorough consideration,” spokesperson Christopher Farrell said in an email.

“To dismiss any one energy source before the prospect and potential that it represents are fully investigated would be inconsistent with the goal of this undertaking,” he said.

Climate groups have called for utilities to move toward electrification using solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower instead.

Researchers have debated the merits of synthetic natural gas, hydrogen and renewable natural gas. William Moomaw, a former International Panel on Climate Change scientist who lives in Williamstown, has said he believes that leaning on those gases, which all emit greenhouse gases when burned, delays an inevitable transition.

After several observers voiced concerns at a Feb. 1 stakeholder meeting, the companies successfully petitioned the Department of Public Utilities to extend their deadline from March 1 to March 18, allowing more time for comments to be submitted.

Yet, some question whether their input would significantly alter the course of action.

Rosemary Wessel, director of BEAT’s No Fracked Gas in Mass. program, said she wants Healey or the Department of Utilities to reject the report and ask the companies to start from scratch.

“They should say, ‘Well, sorry. It didn’t hit the mark. You’re going to have to do it again,’ ” Wessel said.

Critics have argued that allowing the companies to hire and select the consultants gave them inordinate power over a process meant to change the industry.

At a Wednesday stakeholder meeting, the law firm representing Berkshire Gas and other companies said that all comments will be accepted, although requests for consultants to redo the process would be “impractical” and “are not going to be possible to be accommodated at this point in the process.”

“Certainly, something like that is not something we will be able to incorporate,” said Jack Habib, a partner at Keegan Werlin LLP. “If someone has a comment that they think a model should have been done differently, obviously, you all have every right to be raising that in your comments if you wish to do so.”

While the companies plan to file another three-year plan in 2024, Wessel said she believes the companies have delayed changes.

“This could just turn into a perpetual exercise without a lot of results, where every time they’ll look at it again, and it’ll be the same sort of stall tactic that we’re seeing here,” she said. “They really need to develop new business models, and they have failed to do that.”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

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