The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities has ordered the state's natural gas distribution companies to take a fresh look at the role they must play in helping the state achieve a low-carbon future to fight climate change.

The companies this week were ordered by MassDPU to hire a consultant and come up with a report describing various pathways they can take to help meet the state's goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The consultant report is due March 1, 2022. After that, action plans are expected.

“The Commonwealth continues to lead the nation on climate change mitigation, and this Order will help assess how to best achieve deep emissions reductions while ensuring a safe, modern and cost-effective heating distribution system for Massachusetts ratepayers,” said DPU Chairman Matthew Nelson in a media release.

The order comes as debate continues in Massachusetts and elsewhere over the role of natural gas in achieving climate goals, with some calling it a "bridge fuel" and others maintaining that there is no role for fossil fuels in a clean energy future. Currently, natural gas plants produce most of the state's electricity, and around half of all Massachusetts homes heat with gas.

National Grid, with its 925,000 natural gas customers in Massachusetts, says it is already seeking to reach net zero emissions by 2050. "We know this cannot be achieved by maintaining the status quo,” the company said in a statement. “Though we do not have all the answers, we believe our electric and gas networks, which play a vital role in the lives of our customers, can be useful in achieving net zero emissions."

Attorney General Maura Healey said her office had requested the investigation back in June with the backing of clean energy advocates who want to transition the state away from fossil fuels.

"We are grateful to the DPU for taking this necessary next step," Healey said. "This investigation is nation-leading and it will allow Massachusetts to plan ahead and make the policy and structural changes in the natural gas industry we need to ensure a clean energy future that is safe, reliable and fair for all of our customers.”

However, some climate activists are saying the order does not go far enough, citing the ongoing permitting and construction of fossil fuel infrastructure in the state. "It seems they want to get all those pipes in the ground before the game changes -- which is not really helpful in terms of the timeframe in which we need to get serious about modernizing our energy system and acting on climate," said Kathryn Eiseman, president of the anti-pipeline group PLAN-NE.

In Thursday's media release, the DPU said protecting customers will be central to its planning process. The regulators said they wish to slash emissions and safeguard ratepayer interests while "securing natural gas service that is safe, reliable, and affordable."

Governor Charlie Baker has called for achieving net-zero emissions in Massachusetts by 2050. Back in 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change called for countries to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Net-zero does not mean there will be no emissions, but instead that any remaining emissions will be offset in other ways -- for instance, through carbon capture technologies or reforestation.

The Baker administration is now working on its 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap and 2030 Clean Energy and Climate Plan. Both documents are both expected to be released by the end of 2020.

The 2050 Roadmap is described as "a nation-leading quantitative and qualitative planning effort that will chart multiple technical and policy pathways by which the Commonwealth can equitably and cost-effectively achieve net zero emissions by 2050."  The 2030 Clean Energy and Climate Plan will detail how to achieve that limit.

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