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William Harwood is Maine’s public advocate. Prior to 2018, as a lawyer in private practice, he represented Summit Utilities, Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline and large consumers of natural gas.
One of the biggest energy issues facing Maine is what to do about natural gas. There is no shortage of ideas, but unfortunately no easy answers.
Natural gas is transported to us via a system of high-pressure interstate pipelines. It’s used to generate approximately 50 percent of the electricity consumed in New England. Maine’s four natural gas utilities deliver gas to approximately 50,000 Maine ratepayers who use it primarily for industrial manufacturing or domestic heating and cooking. But few people are happy with the status quo.
The challenges surrounding natural gas are clearly illustrated by two dramatically different approaches. Maine businesses, represented by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, and industry by the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, want to expand the pipeline network to bring more gas into Maine, especially during the coldest days of the winter. Environmental groups want to phase out the use of natural gas in Maine.
Driving this debate is a complicated and tangled web of economic and environmental concerns. Despite recent dramatic increases in the price of gas caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the gas industry continues to promote gas as costing less than most competing energy sources. But consumer advocates point to heat pumps using electricity generated by wind and sun as more cost-effective alternatives.
Environmental groups as well as the U.S. Department of Energy identify natural gas as a fossil fuel, just like oil. They point out that natural gas releases more methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere than any other energy source. There also is a growing body of scientific research suggesting that methane gas released inside our homes is a serious public health risk that contributes to childhood asthma.
Who is right?
The industry’s response to the environmental concerns is that it is working on a new product, which it calls “renewable natural gas.” By breaking cattle manure down in a system called an anaerobic digester, the gas is captured and can be used to generate renewable energy.
The natural gas issue is exacerbated by the claims from some of our local gas utilities that they are “growth” utilities that need to expand the number of customers served in order to lower the unit cost of delivering the gas. For example, 10 years ago Summit Natural Gas Company invested more than $300 million in Kennebec County to build a system designed to serve 15,000 customers. Today there are fewer than 5,000 Summit customers. Should Summit be using aggressive promotional and marketing techniques to convince 10,000 more customers to scrap their old oil furnaces and invest up to $10,000 in new gas furnaces to be served by Summit?
Can we meet our climate goals if we allow the gas industry to grow and expand? If we decide to phase out natural gas, who is responsible for picking up the “stranded costs” of all the gas infrastructure that is no longer needed? The investors or the ratepayers?
These are not easy questions. They require careful and thoughtful research and analysis that focus on the long-term costs and benefits of our dependency on natural gas to meet our energy needs. What we need is a clear-eyed understanding of the economic and scientific facts. What is not helpful are one-sided campaign type slogans that focus only on either the advantages or disadvantages of relying on natural gas.
I hope that the state will appoint a group of experts, industry representatives, consumer and environmental advocates and state officials to study this problem carefully and make recommendations that will help us decide what to do about natural gas.