State policy makers across the Northwest are ramping up efforts to rein in carbon emissions. Yet their grand plans are simply not achievable if the region’s private utilities are allowed to proceed with theirs. Northwest decarbonization will rely on states reducing their use of natural gas, but their biggest utilities plan to keep increasing usage, putting these plans in direct opposition.

There is no compromise here, no middle way. Without sharply reducing the Northwest’s gas use, the math of decarbonization simply will not add up.

Northwest states have a lot of work to do to reach their climate targets. Washington is legally obligated to reduce emissions 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, which means the state’s natural gas use must decline dramatically, since nearly one-quarter of the state’s energy-related carbon emissions are from gas. Meanwhile, Oregon’s laws aim for an 80 percent reduction by 2050, but more than one-third of its energy-related emissions are from gas. Neither Idaho nor Alaska is planning to reduce emissions, but Montana is aspiring for net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century, even though its targets are not yet enshrined in law.

Yet in every one of these states, the gas industry—and consumer gas utilities in particular—are planning not to reduce the use of natural gas but to increase it. Resolving this tension between the public’s desire to decarbonize and gas companies’ desire for growth is at the heart of Cascadia’s climate challenge.

Gas has got to go. According to the Clean Energy Transition Institute’s (CETI) robust analysis of decarbonization pathways for Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, even aiming for somewhat more modest climate targets—an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions across the region by 2050—the report’s modelers found that over the next three decades, the region will need to eliminate nearly all the gas now used for generating electricity and essentially zero out the use of gas in homes.

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  • But private gas utilities in the Northwest are making very different plans, and, so far, the region’s policy makers are doing little to stop them. In fact, Washington and Oregon’s largest gas utilities, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and NW Natural, respectively, are wildly out of step with a vision of decarbonization. Each company’s Integrated Resource Plans (NW Natural, PSE: Slide 26) project an increase in gas use for the next 20 years. NW Natural says that even though it is committed to reducing the carbon from its product and operations by 30 percent by 2035, it is still counting on a 10 percent growth in natural gas consumption through 2037. (That forecast contradicts a NW Natural-commissioned 2018 study that predicted a drop in natural gas usage.) And this year, Montana’s largest gas utility, NorthWestern Energy, filed a plan with state regulators that aims to expand pipelines, grow customer demand for residential gas, and boost gas-fired electricity generation despite Montana’s net-zero carbon order announced in 2019. And to no one’s surprise, gas utilities in states with no governmental commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, like Alaska and Idaho, have no decarbonization plans in the works. Further, Intermountain Gas in Idaho is actually planning to meet emissions standards by growing its liquified natural gas (LNG) business, which presents problems of its own.

    These utility-scale plans for growth in gas are consistent with (and add to) the welter of big infrastructure expansion plans across the region that would support the gas industry’s new projects, including the Pacific Gas Connector pipeline that would deliver gas to the proposed Jordan Cove LNG export facility in Coos Bay, Oregon, as well as the Kalama gas-to-methanol export, the Tacoma LNG project, and a new gas-fired power plant in northeast Oregon. All these plans fly directly in the face of Northwest states’ decarbonization plans.

    Decarbonization means decommissioning large portions of the Northwest’s natural gas system—both its physical infrastructure and its current financial models.

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    In Montana, at least, there is some pushback to gas utility expansion plans. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which is tasked with carrying out the state’s net-zero carbon vision, says that NorthWestern Energy’s new plan lacks analysis about the impacts of climate regulations and is missing other key information. (A decision on the plan is still pending.) Yet neither Washington nor Oregon has initiated formal processes to manage a transition away from natural gas. Thus far, lawmakers in the Northwest’s most populous and progressive states have mostly focused on matters like cleaning up the electric grid and encouraging electrification of the transportation sector while placing little emphasis on guiding gas utilities (and their customers) toward a clean energy future.

    Decarbonization means decommissioning large portions of the Northwest’s natural gas system—both its physical infrastructure and its current financial models. Simultaneously growing Northwest utilities’ natural gas markets and meeting Cascadia’s climate targets is simply not possible.

    In future articles we will explore the myriad roadblocks to shrinking the role of gas in the Northwest’s energy system. Starting with what other states are doing to confront the problem of gas utilities’ growth plans, we will outline some ways for Northwest states to get serious about getting gas out of their energy systems. But in broad terms, the goal should be clear to climate champions: starting now, we must greatly reduce our gas consumption and start shrinking the physical infrastructure that enables it.