Rhode Island to Examine Role Natural Gas Should Play in Meeting Emissions Goals


WARWICK, R.I. — State utility officials will start the new year with a special resolution: studying how the natural gas distribution system will play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) signed off on a three-part work plan that includes a review of current state policy on natural gas, a technical analysis of the system to be performed by Rhode Island Energy, and identifying ways state regulators can help achieve emission reduction goals.

Unlike many PUC dockets, where lawyers and experts spar over proposed policy in highly technical jargon, this one will remain uncontested. In a memorandum outlining the staff’s final recommendations, staff cautioned the docket would remain an information-gathering enterprise, and indicated members of the public expecting radical action would have to wait for a future docket.

“One common theme regarding the purpose of the docket are comments [from the public] that recommend specific outcomes for the future state of the gas distribution system, such as rapidly abandoning the gas distribution system,” PUC staff wrote. “While these options will be explored in the proceeding, Staff does not recommend eliminating any potential options for meeting the requirements of the Act [on Climate] in this scope stage of the proceeding.”

The docket is aimed at solving a key tension in state policy: What will the role of fossil fuels play in achieving the mandates of the Act on Climate law?

The legislation, signed into law last year by Gov. Dan McKee, requires state officials to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, with plenty of benchmark goals in between. If the state fails to meet reductions laid out in the law, it could open itself to legal challenges.

But there’s an elephant in the room called natural gas. About half the homes in the state rely on natural gas for heat in the winter, and another third use home heating oil. Residential and commercial heating accounts for 26% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Rhode Island, according to the latest GHG Emissions Inventory from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Homes not relying on fossil fuels for heat still overwhelmingly rely on it for electricity generation; 87% of electricity generated for the state comes from natural gas, with renewables making up the rest, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

The docket was part of a larger settlement agreement between the PPL Corp., the Pennsylvania-based company that bought Narragansett Electric from National Grid earlier this year and renamed it Rhode Island Energy, and Attorney General Peter Neronha. Neither PPL nor Rhode Island Energy was allowed to object to the creation of the docket.

Rhode Island isn’t the first to open such a docket. Massachusetts opened a similar docket in 2020 to assess its role in the Bay State’s emission reduction goals. Its investigation came under fire earlier this year for allowing the state’s utility companies to write their own reports, with environmental groups shut out of the process.

The PUC said it will have a list of clear recommendations for stakeholders by the end of the docket, after which it will consider which ones to implement. “To the extent possible, these future processes should be centralized for the benefit of public participation and transparency,” PUC staff wrote.

A request for proposals (RFP) is currently out for a consultant to assist with the docket’s stakeholder process. Agency staff are expected to begin work sometime next month.


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