Man walking on a pipeline

The False Promise of Natural Gas

I read an interesting opinion piece in Commonwealth by Anthony Buxton and Benjamin Borowski, where the authors outline their arguments for expanding natural gas pipelines here in Massachusetts. On the surface they make a convincing case, but their analysis is one-dimensional. The piece can be summed up in a single sentence: Heating with oil is expensive and harms the environment, so we should expand pipeline capacity and convert more homes to natural gas.

Let’s look at a few of the arguments made in detail.

Oil is more expensive than natural gas

This is a fact — oil is more expensive than natural gas today, but that is a weak argument for building the Kinder Morgan (Northeast Energy Direct) and Spectra pipelines. Changes to fossil fuel prices fluctuate over time based on supply, demand and external factors that impact energy markets. The prices we pay for oil and natural gas are in fact low, as they don’t account for the environmental costs of extracting and burning fossil fuels. In a perfect market, these externalities would be factored into our energy prices (which is what a price on carbon attempts to do).

Will we continue to see low natural gas prices in Massachusetts? In the short-term, the answer appears to be yes. In the long-term, this is far less certain. Analysis from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that the U.S. will be a net exporter of natural gas by 2017. This will almost certainly lead to higher domestic natural gas prices as gas is exported to meet global demand. How much of an impact will we see? Australia has recently seen natural gas prices triple because of increased demand resulting from exports.

We’re harming the environment by heating with oil

This is also true. Unfortunately, there’s virtually no way to heat your home in Massachusetts without some adverse impact to the environment (solar and wind have minimal impact, but are not harmless). Burning oil and natural gas releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Natural gas releases approximately 116 pounds of CO2 per British Thermal Unit (BTU) consumed, while oil releases 161 pounds. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story from a climate perspective. The extraction and transmission of natural gas also releases methane (CH4), a potent Greenhouse gas (GHG). Although methane only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years, its global warming potential is 28-30 times that of CO2.

The natural gas that would flow through these pipelines would be imported from Appalachia, where gas is extracted via hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking). Not only does fracking cause groundwater contamination and earthquakes, the process itself results in the release of a great deal of methane. Some scientists believe that using fracked natural gas is actually worse for the climate than coal, never mind oil. What we know with certainty is that moving from oil to natural gas for environmental reasons is a false promise. There is no “bridge fuel” and we should not waste our time and resources moving from one fossil fuel to another.

The high cost of oil heat has an adverse impact on low-income families

This is also true, and also tells just part of the story. The high price of anything that is required to meet our basic needs adversely impacts low-income families. The solution to this problem is not subsidizing conversions from oil to gas for low-income families, which will only exacerbate our natural gas capacity issues. What should we do then? Let’s take the money needed to do these conversions and some of the $7 billion required to build the pipelines and invest in weatherization work and deep energy retrofits to the homes of low-income families. When the work is complete, these homes will be more comfortable, more valuable, and will cost very little to heat and cool. Importantly, this effort will also reduce our GHG emissions, which is something that won’t happen by shuffling from oil to natural gas.

Gas demand is already greater than pipeline capacity, therefore we need bigger pipelines

Demand does exceed supply on a handful of days in the winter, but simply expanding natural gas capacity to resolve this issue is a misguided solution. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office is working on an analysis of our regional energy requirements and the need for new gas capacity. This analysis is especially important given the recent forecast from ISO New England that predicts no new growth in total electricity consumption over the next 10 years. Per ISO New England, this incredible forecast is the result of solar installations and energy efficiency efforts.

Renewable energy and energy efficiency are just some of the tools that can be used to address peak demand. Energy storage, time-of-use electricity pricing and demand-response can also help us meet or reduce demand during periods of peak load. Expanding natural gas pipelines is a lazy solution to the capacity issues that we created, and it’s one that ignores resiliency, the local environment, and climate change. We can and must do better.

Bottom Line

Don’t believe the false promise of natural gas. Moving from oil to gas is not going to solve any environmental or economic problems. Instead it will weaken us, as all of our energy eggs will be in one basket (or rather pipeline). What happens if the pipelines or transfer stations that bring gas into the state are rendered inoperable from some type of natural (or unnatural) disaster? What if this happens in the middle of winter? Diversification of the fuels we use to heat our homes and generate electricity provides resiliency.

I’m not a proponent of oil. I work in the energy efficiency industry and believe climate change is one of the most important and challenging issues humans have ever faced. I’m looking at the pipeline issue with the mindset of an environmentalist and systems analyst, and in my opinion we can’t waste our time shifting from one fossil fuel to another. We need to focus on energy efficiency and moving to clean, renewable energy sources.

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