Massachusetts directs agency to study phase-out of natural gas

(Reuters) - Massachusetts’ top attorney asked the state’s public utilities regulator on Thursday to probe the future of the natural gas industry as the state moves away from burning fossil fuels because they contribute to climate change.

FILE PHOTO: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey listens to a question during an interview with Reuters at her office in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

If the state’s Department of Public Utilities opens the investigation, Massachusetts would become the third state to launch a formal process to phase out natural gas, the office of Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement.

California and New York are also studying a transition away from relying on natural gas for heating buildings and cooking in favor of electrified systems powered by renewable sources.

In a petition filed with the DPU, Healey’s office said Massachusetts would have to make large cuts in its use of fossil fuels to meet the state’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and that the decline would require natural gas distribution companies to make substantial changes to their business models.

“There has been little public discussion of the resulting business planning and financial implications of building electrification,” the petition said.

DPU said it was reviewing the filing.

National Grid Plc, a major natural gas supplier in Massachusetts, said in a statement that it welcomed the opportunity to participate in an investigation.

“The Northeast is likely to need a tapestry of solutions for heat, and our research and experience shows us that the gas network can play an integral role,” the utility said.

Until recently, many environmentalists considered natural gas to be a “bridge fuel” to a future of renewable energy. But research is mounting that natural gas contributes significantly to global warming by leaking from distribution infrastructure and other sources.

Natural gas proponents argue the fuel is cheaper than alternatives and that the industry is limiting methane emissions with improved efficiency and leak detection.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici in New York and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Writing by Nichola Groom; Editing by Peter Cooney