Massachusetts’ investor-owned gas utility companies are in the midst of a fossil fuel project that may cost as much as the “Big Dig,” but ratepayers and climate advocates are fighting back. At October’s Climate Action Call, ninety Mothers Out Front members and allies gathered to learn about the problems created by the state’s outdated gas pipe repair program and the legislative solutions that would support a swift and complete transition to clean heat.
Monthly Climate Action Calls provide participants with information about critical climate issues, opportunities to take collective action, and the chance to connect with fellow advocates, all in less than an hour. This month, Mothers Out Front member Ania Carmago introduced attendees to Massachusetts’ Gas System Enhancement Program (GSEP). GSEP was established in 2014 with the goal of eliminating leak prone gas mains and pipes by 2034 (later extended to 2039) to increase safety and reliability and to reduce emissions. This program began when it was expected that Massachusetts would remain on natural gas for another 60 to 80 years.
Applied research economist Dorie Seavey has been investigating the effectiveness of GSEP and reports that “GSEP is not meaningfully aligned with the Commonweath’s climate goals or policies.” Seavey joined the Climate Action Call to share findings from her recent report GSEP at the Six Year Mark, commissioned by Gas Leaks Allies (which includes Mothers Out Front).
- GSEP incentivizes utility companies to replace pipes rather than repair them. These companies installed over $500 million worth of new fossil fuel infrastructure in the ground in 2020, spending hundreds of millions more than what is necessary to repair identified gas leaks. Over time, the projected pipe replacement work is expected to cost $20 billion.
- As gas leaks are repaired, new leaks emerge. Utility companies cannot make meaningful progress on improving safety or cutting emissions because the size and complexity of the pipe leaks increases over time. The largest utility companies have not made progress on the leaks that are the most difficult to repair, which typically are in congested urban areas and environmental justice communities.
- The three largest utility companies are so far failing to meet methane emission targets set by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas and also pollutes the air, kills shade trees, and threatens public safety.
- Utility customers are pay for these replacements through gas surcharges. Over time, utility companies will ask for greater and greater rate increases to support this work. Rising costs are unlikely to be shared in an equitable way, placing an unfair burden on lower-income customers.
- These investments in new underground pipes may be paving the way for utility companies to supply other climate-damaging and dangerous fuels, such as hydrogen.
“We’re at a critical crossroads,” Seavey said “and what is so crystal clear is that the underlying, foundational assumption of GSEP, that the gas distribution system would make sense for another 60 years, is no longer valid. So, making huge investments in updating the Commonwealth’s gas infrastructure is irreconcilably at odds with our climate mandates and with the urgency of the changes we need to make to lower our greenhouse gas emissions. We absolutely need to go in a different direction.”
Following Seavey’s presentation, Carmago described an alternative strategy – fix the biggest and most dangerous gas leaks, and invest in renewable heating instead of more gas. A bill pending before the Massachusetts state legislature, “An Act Relative to the Future of Heat in the Commonwealth” (S.2148/H.3298), would provide incentives and financing mechanisms for gas companies to transition away from gas toward renewable thermal heat sources, such as networked geothermal systems. The bill would also incentivize repairing leaks over replacing pipes, freeing up millions of dollars for projects like retrofitting low-income housing, retraining gas workers, and install clean community heating technology. During the call, participants send over 100 emails to legislators asking them to cosponsor and support the “Future of Heat” bill.
Carmago also prepared call participants to contact Massachusetts utility companies to demand the heating options they want. Community “GeoGrid” technology offers a clean, safe, and sustainable path forward for gas utility companies. In networked ground-source heat pump systems (aka. GeoGrids), homes and businesses are connected to underground pipes filled with water and extract thermal energy for heating and cooling using heat pumps. This existing and proven technology could provide a path to a fossil-fuel-free future for utility companies, and is already being piloted in the state. However, adoption remains slow.
Climate action call attendees tweeted at their utility companies using #RedirectGSEP. Their messages spoke to their fears about the financial and environmental costs to future generations, and their desires for heating systems that support clean air and a livable climate.
“We have to tell the utility companies what we want,” Carmago said. “We have to tell them it’s not acceptable to spend $20 billion of our dollars that our children and grandkids are going to be paying into the next century to keep us on gas. We want renewable energy, and this is the solution we do want.”
Join us in taking action for our climate!
Reach out to your legislators, utilities, and networks
If you have not done so already, use the action kit from this Climate action call to ask your Massachusetts state legislators to cosponsor and support the Future of Clean Heat bill (S.2148/H.3298). The kit also offers sample tweets for utility companies that you can use with #RedirectGSEP. You can also use the kit’s sample emails to get your friends and family involved.
Sign the Future of Clean Heat Petition
Register for the next Climate Action Call
The next Climate Action Call will take place Thursday, November 18, 12:00-12:45 pm. At each Climate Action Call, Mothers Out Front organizers will offer a different impactful climate action for participants to take during the event. Attendees do not need prior experience or knowledge to participate. Register here.
Michelle Scott is a volunteer with Mothers Out Front in Medford. She is a transportation planner, an amateur birder and gardener, and mother to an energetic one-year-old explorer.