A natural gas meter near the foundation of a new home under contruction.
New home construction in Wisconsin in 2021. Credit: AP Photo / Jon Elswick

State legislation to halt expansion of natural gas infrastructure in Maine as soon as next year has been cut back into a package of studies that contemplate the role of gas in the state’s energy future. 

Environmental advocates hope these studies will prove that continued reliance on gas is the wrong choice for public health, ratepayer pocketbooks and Maine’s climate goals, while the state’s gas utilities see the new version of the bill as a chance to explore roles for alternative fuels like hydrogen and biogas. 

“The gas utilities are going to make a very strong case that they’re more part of the solution to climate change than part of the problem — [there is] a lot of skepticism about that,” said Bill Harwood, Maine’s Public Advocate for residential utility customers. “If they can’t make the case, then we will look at how we transition away from natural gas and toward wind, solar and electricity.” 

Harwood wrote the initial proposal, which would have barred utilities from including the cost of new gas service lines and mains in residential and commercial customers’ rates starting in 2025 and would have told state regulators not to approve any expanded gas service. 

This plan, which also included studies about the health effects of gas appliances and methane leaks and the economics of a climate-driven transition off it, quickly proved “very controversial,” Harwood said. 

It drew opposition from the gas utilities, building trades, industrial sector and the Maine Governor’s Energy Office, which helps oversee the state’s climate plan. 

Those stakeholders worked with environmental groups and Harwood’s office to craft a compromise amendment eliminating the proposed ban on gas expansions, which narrowly passed in a legislative committee last week. 

The amendment proposes a state Public Utilities Commission inquiry on ways to plan and oversee utilities’ future gas investments in Maine; a Governor’s Energy Office study on the economic impacts of Maine’s existing gas service and its potential role in “supporting the transition to a low carbon future”; and a commission to study ways to ensure a just energy transition for Maine workers.

Jack Shapiro, the climate and clean energy director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which supported the original bill and worked on the amendment, said these studies should give legislators the evidence they need to start a real transition from gas and the industry’s favored alternative fuels. 

“Our 2030 goals are six years away, and we’re seeing the impacts of climate change pretty starkly this winter,” Shapiro said. “We can’t go around and say, well, maybe this technology will evolve over time … we need to make sure we’re not chasing shadows here.” 

The new version of the bill now heads to the full Democratically-controlled legislature for a vote and then potential signature by Maine Gov. Janet Mills, also a Democrat. 

Some see conflict with state climate policy

The Mills administration has been nationally lauded for pushing Maine residents to switch from heating oil to electric heat pumps, among other clean energy goals. 

The Governor’s Energy Office declined to answer questions for this story about how the amended gas bill and their opposition to the original version align with state climate policy.

Maine’s targets include using 100% renewable electricity by 2040 and cutting greenhouse gas emissions 45% from 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Maine reached 51% renewable electricity in 2023 and was 25% below 1990 emissions as of 2019.

The Governor’s Energy Office is tasked with studying pathways to the renewable energy goal and is due to recommend one this year. The studies proposed in the amended gas bill would dig into the economics of where gas and pipelines may fit in. 

Right now, Maine uses less gas than almost any other state, especially in the residential sector, where supply is concentrated mostly in the far southern part of the state. Federal data shows gas serves about 8% of Maine’s home heating needs, for example, while heating oil supplies 56%. 

But Maine’s four gas utilities are growing. Analysis by Harwood’s office found they’ve installed more than 100 miles of new pipe, an 8% increase, and added more than 6,000 new customers, a 12% increase, since 2019. 

“We don’t want the gas utilities to continue to expand, business as usual, and then turn around and present the bill to those ratepayers who are taking natural gas once the dust settles,” Harwood said. “What we were trying to do in the original (bill) was stop expansion, but not interfere right now with their (the utilities’) continued ability to deliver gas to those customers who have already made the investment.”

To state Rep. Sophie Warren (D-Scarborough), who sits on the legislature’s energy committee, the amendment marks a pragmatic but disheartening approach to getting anything on this topic passed.

“I feel in some ways ashamed to be voting for something that is so far from what could have been good and useful and necessary,” Warren said to fellow legislators on the committee before voting in favor of the amendment March 7.

Warren, who is in her second term and graduated from college in 2019, said in a later interview that she and others of her generation want to see more urgency and less incrementalism from Maine politicians on issues like this. She raised concerns about how much influence the gas industry had on the amendment, which she sees as in direct conflict with the need to go completely fossil-free to fight climate change. 

“I really fear that we could be getting away from what science demands, what justice demands,” she said. “We can’t be, in this year of 2024, saying that natural gas is a partner in that. We have to understand that our goal must be far more ambitious.” 

Alec O’Meara, the director of external affairs for Unitil, one of Maine’s gas providers, said the state’s outsized reliance on fuels like heating oil means lower-carbon gas can still aid in decarbonization. 

“We have opportunities to help reduce (emissions) today,” he said, “and we see opportunities to use gas infrastructure to help deliver renewable energy in the future as well.” 

Utilities eye roles for new fuels

The governor’s office study in the new version of the bill would be required to be consistent with state climate policy while considering ways to do that, including with green hydrogen (made from water using renewable energy), biogas from farms (sometimes called “renewable natural gas”), and district-scale geothermal electricity. 

“We see our infrastructure really as a pipeline infrastructure,” said Lizzy Reinholt, a senior vice president with Summit Utilities, another of Maine’s gas providers. “Much like we focus on creating policy and regulatory frameworks to reduce the emissions intensity of the electrons running in the wires above us, we think it’s just as incumbent on the state to focus on how we reduce the emissions intensity of the molecules in the pipes.” 

It’s not clear yet whether hydrogen or biogas would be considered “renewable” for Maine’s climate goals. But environmental groups have cast doubt on these fuels’ value as part of the state’s energy transition. 

“We already know that alternative fuels, like hydrogen and renewable natural gas, are not economic, efficient or scalable climate solutions for heating,” said Emily Green, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine, another nonprofit that backed the original bill and helped with the amendment. “We are confident that the state’s (proposed) reports will reach that conclusion.” 

A 2019 study from the American Gas Foundation found that Maine could produce about 19.6 trillion Btu of biogas per year if it maxed out production from farms, landfills and more. That would replace about a third of Maine’s already low yearly natural gas consumption, according to federal data. 

Summit spent $20 million on an anaerobic digester in Clinton, Maine, that turns cow manure from dairy farms into biogas — enough to supply nearly half of the company’s residential load in Maine. 

That customer base is a very small part of a small utility sector in the state. Compared to Unitil’s 27,000 residential customers, Summit has fewer than 5,000 in Maine — a third of what the company has built its system for, according to Harwood, who has sparred with Summit over its rates and growth in recent years.

Reinholt argued that Harwood’s original bill would have prematurely limited exploration of these and other approaches as potential “levers that we can pull” in Maine’s climate efforts. 

Still, Harwood and others said the proposed studies in the amendment will take up precious time on the way to Maine’s climate goals and to scientists’ predicted future harms if emissions don’t decline sharply. 

“Time is our enemy, and we’d all like to see these … decisions made sooner rather than later,” Harwood said. “But there’s only so much resources available in state government. This is the best we can get.”

Annie is an independent climate journalist based in Maine, where she is a regular contributor to the Maine Monitor. Originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, she spent a decade as an award-winning local public radio reporter and host in New Hampshire, Indiana, Delaware and Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Annie is a board member with the Society of Environmental Journalists.