A case for ditching natural gas: Mothers Out Front aims to send message to legislators, utilities

People against a proposed natural gas pipeline between Longmeadow and Springfield at a 2021 press conference. The state last summer sent the expansion plan back to Eversource for more study. Mothers Out Front says this is one example of how lobbying for change can work.

People against a proposed natural gas pipeline between Longmeadow and Springfield at a 2021 press conference. The state last summer sent the expansion plan back to Eversource for more study. Mothers Out Front says this is one example of how lobbying for change can work. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 02-07-2024 4:55 PM

Modified: 02-07-2024 5:22 PM


The influential lobby group Mothers Out Front took aim at the natural gas industry this week, using its monthly climate action call to encourage people to push for a future without gas.

Each month, the statewide group with local chapters in the Pioneer Valley mobilizes members for a 45-minute lunchtime call that highlights a climate concern and suggests action to take. This month’s call zeroed in on efforts to transition the state off natural gas heating and electricity by obligating utilities to provide electric or geothermal heat rather than gas.

The group also supports a moratorium to inhibit gas service expansion and calls for ceasing renovations of gas infrastructure.

“The gas utilities must stop wasting ratepayer and taxpayer resources building a shiny new gas system. We need to be investing this money into renewable, zero-emission energy systems,” said Susan Sommer, a Mothers Out Front member from Watertown. “We can’t afford to continue with gas and electrify our buildings. We have to choose our future.”

The call started by featuring Felicia Mednick, a member of the Amherst chapter of Mothers Out Front, who updated the group on the chapter’s efforts to stop Eversource’s proposed 5.3-mile underground natural gas pipeline between Longmeadow and Springfield. As the Mothers Out Front representative with Springfield’s Climate Justice Coalition, Mednick fought against the pipeline due to its proximity to schools, apartment buildings, playgrounds and railroad tracks.

“We were some of the main authors to the state who pointed out where Eversource lied about meeting the regulations for building their pipeline,” Mednick said.

The state’s energy and environmental affairs secretary, Rebecca Tepper, rejected the Eversource plan last June, sending it back to the utility for further study about how project would affect the state’s climate goals and impact local communities.

While the state department paused development of the pipeline in July 2023, Mednick warns that Eversource continues to lobby in support of the pipeline. The utility says the project is designed to improve reliability of the natural gas system in the greater Springfield area for approximately 58,000 existing natural gas customers.

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“(Mothers Our Front) can raise our voices to let our legislatures know what we want,” Mednick said. “What happens in Springfield is being closely watched, and it may determine what will or won’t happen in the rest of the state.”

After Mednick’s comments, Sommer explained the state’s actions toward transitioning away from natural gas, including a Dec. 6 order from the Department of Public Utilities that aims to discourage gas system expansions by requiring gas distribution companies to evaluate whether there are non-gas alternatives available — such as electrification, networked geothermal or targeted energy efficiency — that would make additional gas infrastructure investment unnecessary.

In order for a gas utility to receive full cost recovery for a gas system expansion, it will “bear the burden of demonstrating that (non-gas alternatives) were adequately considered and found to be non-viable or cost prohibitive,” DPU said in the order.

Sommer explained that since the main strategy for decarbonizing buildings is electrification and heat pumps, an order forcing utility companies to contemplate these options is a step in the right direction.

The same order also requires utility companies to issue a Climate Compliance Plan in 2025 and every five years thereafter to ensure they are within state emissions limits and moving toward divestment from fossil fuels.

“We’ve hear that people, including legislators, think the job is done, but it’s not,” Sommer said. “Legislators have important work to do immediately to implement the goals the DPU laid out.”

Climate bill priorities

Specifically, Sommer said the next crucial legislation is an omnibus climate bill by the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. Mothers Out Front aims to provide public support for the bill and include its own priorities in the legislation.

The first is changing the language the law uses. Sommer said current laws require utilities to provide natural gas for neighborhoods, which counters climate goals. Instead, the law should obligate utilities to provide heat to residents, preferably through geothermal sources or heat pumps.

“We want the Legislature to change the requirements around how utilities operate,” she said.

The nonprofit is also pushing for a moratorium that prevents further expansion of natural gas infrastructure, such as the Longmeadow-Springfield pipeline.

The third request is to end renovations of gas infrastructure under the Gas System Enhancement Program. Originally created in 2014 to fix leak-prone gas pipes, the program is expected to cost ratepayers over $40 billion at current rates to replace pipes carrying greenhouse gases like methane. Mothers Out Front believes this money would be better spent transitioning to renewable heat sources.

The meeting ended by providing members with an email template to send to their state senators asking to support these three priorities in upcoming legislation and support the omnibus bill.

“We should never doubt the impact of working together can have,” Mothers Out Front member Diane Sokal said. “These calls are so helpful for our future because it will take a lot of people to make change.”

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.