by Dylan Voorhees, NRCM Clean Energy Director
Senator Thibodeau and Representative Fitts,
The Natural Resources Council of Maine does not have a position for or against this bill, but offers the following testimony which may be of assistance to the committee in evaluating the policy. We recognize that the technical scope of this bill is relatively narrow and includes consideration of issues for which we have no position, but that it raises important policy questions about Maine’s strategy for fostering different energy choices, and questions about natural gas in particular.
NRCM believes that Maine needs a bold and effective strategy to significantly reduce Maine’s use of and dependence on oil, including oil for heating and industrial uses. Much has been said and remains to be said about this challenge, which is both economic and environmental. It is easy to say that we should significantly reduce heating oil usage, and harder to implement effective policies and foster the right investments to achieve it. In part, that is because there is no single strategy, fuel or technology that will do the trick. It is also difficult because most energy choices have trade-offs that require close scrutiny and sometimes difficult judgments.
The most important, immediate and cost-effective thing Maine can do to reduce oil use and energy costs is with weatherization and efficiency efforts. Avoiding usage of a gallon of oil through home weatherization is relatively cheapâfor example through our recently expired but incredibly effective Home Energy Savings Program, it cost little more than $1/gallon. In industrial settings, the cost can be significantly less. The evidence is fairly clear that efficiency is the cheapest resource available, and that much more remains possible. Energy efficiency is also a “no-regret” choice. The price of efficiency is not subject to any future, volatile price swings. The only possible downside risk would be if oil were to plummet to less than $1/gallon and stay there. We all know those days are gone (even $2/gallon days are probably gone.)
It is also important to pursue an broad and deep energy efficiency strategy in Maine as a first-step because it is the most economic to reduce consumption through efficiency, often by 20-40%, before investing in new heating equipment (whether for a new fuel or a different one.) Otherwise we risk overbuilding and overspending on our energy infrastructure, both across the state and in individual buildings.
The second best choice for meeting our energy needs is with renewable energy sources. This is true for electricity generation, and also for thermal uses. Solar and biomass are both renewable sources of energy in Maine that have significant potential for heating . Renewable energy sources can be produced locally and sustainablyâboth environmentally and economically.
This brings us to switching from oil to natural gas. We will leave others to comment further about the long-term economics of this choice; clearly the near-term economics are very appealing to several businesses in Maine. It seems reasonably likely to us that some large industrial and institutional customers might make the switch up-front. We offer a strong caution that residential and small businesses will be much slower to switch, because of the upfront capital costs of new heating equipment. If they switch in large numbers, it would be over the course of a decadeâand over that period other alternatives (including solar, solar-electric, and electric heat pumps) become very real. That is worth considering as we contemplate major energy infrastructure or policy.
One of the important aspects of this choice is the environmental and climate impacts of natural gas. From an end-use perspective, natural gas is very obviously cleaner, with fewer climate emissions than oil. It beats oil on other pollutants, like sulfur and particulates, too. However it is important to consider entire lifecycles, and there is increasing evidence that natural gas has climate emissions from gas pipelines and drilling itself that make the comparison closer and more difficult. This is particularly a concern with gas from hydraulic fracturing or “fraking”, which is likely to have significantly greater climate emissions than traditional gas . Fraking shale gas is the source of growth in natural gas supplies and the reason for projections of cheap gas prices. That means that any growth in demand for natural gas is likely to lead ultimately back to fraking.
Fraking also carries enormous local and regional environmental impacts where it is drilled, including through contaminated water supplies and the creation of enormous quantities of toxic wastes. Just as most Maine people do not think Ohio should be able to thoughtlessly pollute our air from their coal-power plants, we cannot be blind to the upstream environmental impacts of our choices. NRCM does not have a policy suggestion for how to address this significant concern. It is simply one of the considerations you should include in deciding whether or not to allocate public resources to a natural gas pipeline.
In conclusion, if the motivation of the committee in considering this bill is to help reduce our dependence on oil and reduce energy costs, a natural gas pipeline might be part of our strategy, but there are several even better parts of that strategy, starting with efficiency and weatherization, which we should put greater emphasis on. And although gas may offer some environmental advantage over oil, that case is complex and bears real consideration.
Clean Energy Director