By Jackson Ripley
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON — The intensifying climate crisis has placed the future of natural gas as a fuel source in the center of a debate on how Massachusetts can achieve its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050.
There is a consensus that achieving carbon neutrality is imperative to combating climate change. Where lawmakers and industry leaders disagree, however, is how to get there.
Local lawmakers say there will have to be a balance between getting to net-zero and making sure energy industry workers aren’t left unemployed.
At a legislative climate change committee hearing this month, state Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, said, “The future of gas is largely a future without gas.”
The hearing followed a report published last month by independent consultants to the state’s local gas distribution companies that provided an update on the progress towards net-zero carbon emissions as well as a roadmap for completing the work ahead.
“Achieving net-zero emissions requires early investments in the energy system; those investments must increase over time as energy demand and supply transformations scale,” the report said. “Fossil fuel savings are significant in all pathways. Avoided gas system costs are small relative to the investment costs required in other sectors.”
The report lays out multiple pathways to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, some including the eventual abandonment of natural gas altogether. Others provide a more balanced approach of reduced gas use in favor of renewable resources.
Regardless of which path the state takes, the natural gas industry will have to undergo a considerable “transformation.” Among the most difficult considerations is how to meet heating needs for homes in the coldest weeks of the year.
Eversource spokesman William Hinkle said natural gas will certainly still be needed “in the near term in order to reliably meet the needs of our customers today.”
According to Hinkle, Eversource’s top priority is ensuring the same quality of service to the company’s 638,000 customers to whom they provide natural gas. “If we’re going to achieve these goals, we have to find choices that customers willingly adopt,” he said.
Hinkle added that Eversource has proposed alternatives to reducing emissions, such as strategic electrification, improved efficiency programs, and a pilot network geothermal program in Framingham.
Local lawmakers have expressed the need for balance between achieving net-zero emissions and ensuring energy industry workers’ jobs aren’t put at risk as a result of the reduced reliance on natural gas.
“We surely, without doubt, need to take action in reducing reliance on fossil fuels significantly if we are to meet the climate goals and net-zero goals that are now statute,” said state Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, who represents the King Philip towns, North Attleboro and about half of Attleboro.
Rausch emphasized that the climate crisis is a “global concern” that will require cooperation on every level. This cooperation will have to come fast, she said, if the work is to be done before it’s too late.
In a statement, state Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxboro, said it will be necessary to create a “just transition” for workers moving from natural gas to other sectors of the energy industry with minimal loss to the total number of jobs.
Last year he proposed legislation that would create an office of Just Transition to Clean Energy within the Department of Career Services. The office would train displaced workers and provide new employment opportunities for them.
“The climate crisis is urgent, and our window to respond is quickly closing,” Feeney said. “As a commonwealth we have set goals that all of us must work toward. Every resident must play a role in reducing our carbon footprint and working toward a fossil fuel-free future.”
Correction: The number of natural gas customers served by Eversource was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. Eversource supplies 638,000 customers with natural gas and 1.5 million customers with electricity in Massachusetts.
This article originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle.