In a CommonWealth op-ed, Craig Altemose of 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future criticized the Boston Globe editorial board’s advocacy for new natural gas pipelines, for reasons with which I largely agree.
Altemose is correct that the Globe overstates the environmental impact of this winter’s reliance on old coal- and oil-fired generating plants. A May 2018 report from the Acadia Center states “annual GHG emissions from electricity generation in New England have continued to trend strongly downward since the early 2000s, even when taking the 2017-18 winter into account.”
An even more worrisome aspect of the Globe’s stance on the use of coal and oil on especially frigid winter days is the message that natural gas is a clean fuel. That is the unrelenting drumbeat of the fossil fuel industry, and it is disturbing to watch the Globe amplify it.
Natural gas is not a clean fuel. It’s true that burning natural gas produces much less carbon dioxide—the main planet-warming greenhouse gas—than burning coal or oil. Using natural gas instead of coal or oil also reduces some pollutants, like particulates and sulfur. But that’s only part of the picture.
Natural gas leaks into the air at all stages of its extraction and distribution, and natural gas is methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. There are no satisfying assessments of the “life cycle” warming impact of methane versus coal or oil and, given that, it is not at all clear from a climate perspective that natural gas is much cleaner than other fossil fuels.
Of course, a key question is whether the region in fact needs more natural gas, whether it’s clean or not or whether it’s cheap or not.
On this aspect of the debate, Altemose’s explications are not exactly correct, both with respect to the Supreme Judicial Court’s 2016 decision on electric ratepayer financing of natural gas pipelines and with respect to Attorney General Maura Healey’s study of natural gas and the reliability of the electric system in New England.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision prohibiting electric ratepayer funding of new natural gas infrastructure was not based fundamentally on a policy objection, contrary to Altemose’s assertion. Rather, the SJC held that the Department of Public Utilities’ funding scheme was illegal under current law. Under the SJC’s holding, the Legislature could in fact change the law to impose such a charge, though such a change would be highly unlikely.
Further, Healey did not decide that the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs have (to quote Altemose) “render[ed] the need to invest in pipelines a folly.” It may be that Healey feels investment in pipelines is a folly, but that conclusion is well outside the scope of her study. The study relates only to whether the region needs more natural gas pipeline capacity for electric reliability purposes and to lower the cost of electricity. The attorney general did not address the question of whether the region needs more natural gas for additional purposes, such as heating and manufacturing.
As to whether or not we need more natural gas, environmental advocates are correct that, to the extent we need more energy resources, we should choose efficiency and renewables. But what if those don’t plug the gap left by retiring coal, oil, and nuclear plants? According to ISO-New England, the operator of the region’s electricity grid, more than 16 percent of the region’s current generating capacity will have shut down between 2013 and 2021, and even more generating capacity is at risk for retirement.
Pipeline opponents should credit the possibility that there may, in the near term, be relatively brief periods of need in the region for more natural gas, during very cold winter days when natural gas for heating competes with natural gas for electricity generation. In that event, other methods of providing natural gas, such as liquefication, seem far preferable to building long-lived high-capacity pipelines.
An equally disturbing portion of the Globe editorial posits that if we end up supplying more natural gas via pipeline than we actually need for electricity generation, we can just use the gas to switch homes from oil to gas heat. This argument is cavalier—in light of the warming impacts of natural gas—and outdated. As the region struggles to abandon its use of fossil fuels, it should be moving from oil heat to new, efficient electric heating technologies, such as air-source heat pumps. As the electric grid gets cleaner, thanks to state laws requiring that electricity increasingly be generated by renewable resources, switching from oil to gas for heating instead of switching from oil to electricity would be a step in the wrong direction.
Finally, it should be obvious that it’s a poor idea to increase our over-dependence on natural gas by using more of it. How about that as a cause for the Globe editorial board’s concern?
Ann G. Berwick is the co-director of sustainability for the city of Newton. She is also a former chair of the state Department of Public Utilities.