This is Part 1 of a two-part series.
The clean energy law going into effect this year in DC requires the District’s electricity mix to be 100% clean by 2032, it sets strong energy efficiency requirements for buildings and calls for DC to transition away from gasoline-fueled transportation. But the law is silent on the source of nearly one-fifth of DC’s greenhouse gas emissions: methane gas.
Methane accounted for 17% of DC’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, according to the DC Department of Energy and Environment’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory. As DC’s electricity mix moves toward 100% clean sources, the share of emissions from methane released into the atmosphere and burned in buildings is sure to increase.
Frack to the future?
Frequently called “natural” gas, methane harms our climate and human health in ways that are hardly natural. Methane is usually extracted from the earth via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that involves pumping large amounts of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into the earth. The high-pressure mix then cracks open layers of rock, releasing gas from underground so that it can be burned above ground.
In communities where gas is fracked, the process contaminates groundwater and emits noxious fumes into the air. The resulting methane, a powerful greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is piped into homes and other buildings where it is burned for heating, hot water, and cooking. Burning the gas, especially on stovetops, is worse for your health than you probably realize.
Gas isn’t fracked in DC, but the District’s reliance on fracked gas will prevent DC from meeting its commitment of carbon neutrality by 2050. Electricity and transportation, other leading sources of the emissions that cause climate change, can be powered by clean energy like wind and solar. Gas is intrinsically dirty.
Gas utility pledges to kick the habit
Washington Gas, the local gas utility, has acknowledged that DC needs to stop burning gas. When AltaGas, a Canadian methane supplier, bought Washington Gas last year, the settlement agreement approved by DC’s Public Service Commission stated:
By January 1, 2020, AltaGas will file with the Commission a long-term business plan on how it can evolve its business model to support and serve the District’s 2050 climate goals (e.g., providing innovative and new services and products instead of relying only on selling natural gas). After the business plan is filed, AltaGas will hold bi-annual public meetings to report on and discuss its progress on the business plan.
AltaGas is a business that supplies fracked gas to utilities. Washington Gas is a utility that distributes fracked gas to customers. Some environmentalists are skeptical that the combined company will present a realistic plan to migrate its business away from fracked gas. But that’s what the company agreed to and the transition plan is legally required under the merger agreement.
Asked how the company is preparing for the plan, due in a few months, Washington Gas spokesperson Bernie Tylor wrote in an email: “Washington Gas has begun the process to develop its long-term plan which will explore multiple approaches that range from low/no [greenhouse gas] sourced fuels, advanced energy technologies, infrastructure enhancement, gas and renewable partnerships, transportation, and efficiency programs.”
The statement from Washington Gas did not define “low/no” greenhouse gas fuels. Some gas interests claim we can keep the gas pipeline on full blast with gas from decomposing organic matter. It’s called “biogas.”
Like fracked gas, burning biogas releases carbon into the atmosphere, but no more than was absorbed by the organic material that later decomposed into gas. So is biogas a carbon-neutral solution that will allow climate-friendly combustion?
One problem is that there’s not nearly enough biogas to replace the quantities of fracked gas used in America. An analysis commissioned by the DC Department of Energy and Environment found that even under the rosiest scenarios claimed by the American Gas Foundation, a group funded by the gas industry, biogas could supply only 32% of the region’s gas consumption. And that scenario is rosy indeed – the analysis, conducted in 2017, found that only 36 landfills and seven farms in the entire country produce gas that can be transported through pipelines. None are located in DC, Maryland or Virginia.
The Department of Energy and Environment analysis, conducted by the research firm Synapse Energy Economics and submitted to the Public Service Commission, found that the rosy scenario would require DC to consume more than its share of biogas. If DC uses proportionally more biogas, other areas would have to consume less, meaning we would still need economy-wide reductions in gas use to cut emissions.
Why might a gas utility push biogas if there’s not enough of it? Perhaps because they could mix a small portion of biogas with a much larger amount of fracked gas, greenwashing their dirty fuel.
Promises vs. action
Despite the pledge from Washington Gas to change its business model from relying on gas, the utility is going in the opposite direction. The company is seeking to extend a program subsidizing gas hookups for newly-constructed apartment and condo buildings. Lowering the cost of installing gas piping and other gas infrastructure incentivizes developers to pipe gas into their buildings, not just for cooking, but for as many uses as possible, such as heating, hot water, and even clothes dryers. The subsidy program guarantees Washington Gas a steady stream of gas revenue while the planet continues to heat up.
The best part of the deal for Washington Gas is that the company isn’t actually paying for all that new gas piping. DC’s Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, allowed Washington Gas to “ratebase,” the program, meaning the cost is passed to utility customers (also called ratepayers). The commission approved a two-year pilot program in 2017. Now Washington Gas is back with a request asking the Public Service Commission to extend the program another three years.
The DC government filed a motion in opposition to the extension, noting the program “is designed to lock into [the] ratebase new investments” in “gas infrastructure at a time when achieving the District’s environmental goals requires transitioning away from fossil fuel-based energy.”
The Office of People’s Counsel, which advocates on behalf of utility customers, expressed concern in its filing that the program will “leave ratepayers on the hook for additional program costs.”
Upholding the law and protecting the planet
The final decision is up to the Public Service Commission, the mayorally-appointed three-member quasi-judicial body that oversees DC’s electric, gas and telecommunications utilities. The clean energy law signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in January requires the commission to uphold “the preservation of environmental quality, including effects on global climate change and the District’s public climate commitments” when making decisions.
With the Public Service Commission’s new climate mandate, the three commissioners have a straightforward directive to reject continued subsidies for gas piping and to demand a serious plan from Washington Gas to stop selling methane gas and stop polluting our planet.