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At 'future of gas' stakeholder meeting, climate groups express concern with process

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As ordered by the state Department of Utilities, Massachusetts utilities companies contracted consultants to analyze how those companies can help the state meet its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In a month, consultants contracted by Massachusetts utilities companies must complete an analysis of how those companies can help the state meet its climate goals.

If a Tuesday stakeholder meeting provides any indication of what is to come, climate groups do not expect any real change to come from the process.

In the comments section of the virtual meeting, several of the more than 120 participants expressed disapproval of plans to include “decarbonized” gas — which a consultant defined as synthetic natural gas, hydrogen and renewable natural gas — in the plan. Many also expressed concern that a Feb. 22 deadline would leave the public with only a week to comment on a draft report scheduled to be released on Feb. 15, and they questioned whether their input would have any impact on the final report.

“Irrelevant” is how Rosemary Wessel, director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team’s No Fracked Gas in Mass program, described what she heard at the meeting.

“I would really have liked to have seen them approach the idea that they need to switch business models significantly, and I’m not seeing that,” Wessel said in an interview after the meeting. “I’m seeing definitions that defy logic, like decarbonized gas.”

The process began in June 2020, when Attorney General Maura Healey asked the Department of Public Utilities to investigate the “significant changes” that the state’s target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would require from gas distributions companies.

Berkshire Gas, EverSource, National Grid, Liberty Utilities and Unitil will use the consultant report and stakeholder input to formulate their plans, and the DPU “will use the investigation to create a framework that protects customers,” the DPU said in an October 2020 news release.

Wessel, however, does not believe the process is advancing as intended.

“This was one of the thickest smoke screens I have seen,” Wessel said. “I think we may need to take this back to our legislators and the attorney general’s office and say this needs to be led from outside the utilities.”

The companies selected Energy & Environmental Economics for the job with ScottMadden as a subcontractor, and they retained Energy Resources Management to manage the stakeholder engagement process.

Gas is part of most of the “decarbonization pathways” that consultants have identified.

“It’s really to look at their procurement strategies today and be adding decarbonized gas supply as part of that, whether its biomethane/renewable natural gas or later on, when technologies become more available, [it] could be hydrogen or synthetic natural gas,” ScottMadden partner Tim Lyons said at Tuesday’s meeting. “And so near-term strategies can be ramping that up, introducing portions of that into the supply stream and blending that with the natural gas.

Renewable natural gas, which is taken from organic waste, has become popular in the gas industry, although climate scientists have debated its environmental benefits. While renewable natural gas can divert emissions from waste processes, it still releases carbon dioxide and results in worse air pollution than fossil natural gas.

Synthetic natural gas is derived from coal, and its carbon emissions are greater than burning coal directly, although it leads to less air pollution than coal, a team led by Princeton University researchers found in 2017.

Climate groups prefer moving entirely off of gas and toward electric solutions that use solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower energy, although they say the state government must invest in affordability to make it work.

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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