environment News

How a pair of bills could lead to decades of greenhouse gas emissions from NJ homes

Two bills progressed out of New Jersey Legislature committees this week that, if ultimately passed, critics say would allow utilities to charge ratepayers for energy sources that continue to emit greenhouse gases, and ban mandates of electric heating or water heating in buildings.

Both bills, say critics, like the Empower NJ coalition of environmental advocacy groups, will perpetuate the use of fossil fuels in the state, even as the governor touts investment in renewable energy programs. 

“It is outrageous that during lame duck, with time running out to avert the climate crisis, legislators are considering bills to increase highly potent greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote Empower NJ in a statement.

Let’s look at the two bills. The first, Assembly bill 5655, would allow energy providers to charge energy users (that is, us) for “renewable natural gas” and capturing carbon after burning fossil fuels. 

Now, renewable natural gas is an oxymoron. A utility burns it, it’s gone. Writes enviro group Food & Water Watch on the subject, “In reality, this is just a greenwashed, cleaner sounding name for biomethane, or processed biogas that can be delivered in pipelines. In this way, ‘renewable’ natural gas is a symptom of the systems that are forcing climate change.”

Biogas, in this context, is largely composed of methane, the same, highly-potent greenhouse gas emitted from burning natural gas. Biogas comes from landfills, sewage and livestock manure, often from factory farms. In the process of utilizing biogas for energy production, methane can be (and is often) released into the atmosphere—one 2019 Danish study found, on average, 4.6% of the methane being cultivated in its study group of 23 manure-cultivating energy facilities leaked into the air.

And though the source of methane for biogas isn’t a frack pad—with all its environmental disruption, air pollution, leaks and water contamination—it is often large-scale agricultural operations, which are already some of the biggest catalysts of  climate change. 

Now, the pitch sounds alright, almost common-sense on its surface: that manure, which releases methane, can be captured and burned by energy companies, thus turning waste into energy. Investments are pouring in and partnerships across these industries are rapidly being forged based on this calculation. But it’s also a simplistic one that doesn’t factor in the tons of manure that go unused after plants reach capacity, nor the massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions created by the systems in place to grow food for and feed animals on factory farms.

The second bill that passed out of committee, Senate bill 4133, would prohibit the state from requiring electric heating or water heating systems to be the primary means of providing heat and hot water to buildings. If the bill passes, it would be a blow to the growing movement of electrifying buildings, which many environmental proponents say could have meaningful, long-term benefits to the climate—buildings, after all, last decades or more, and equipping them with fossil fuel-burning infrastructure only guarantees reliance on those energy sources for years to come.

An EarthJustice/Sierra Club report, “The myth of ‘renewable natural gas’ for building decarbonization,” found that building operations account for 40% of carbon emissions globally and that in 2018, U.S. buildings increased carbon emissions by 10% largely due to burning gas for heating, hot water and cooking. 

The report also found that burning fossil gas alternatives, like biogas as mentioned above, ranges from four to 17 times more costly than burning fossil fuels; and thus, there’s the impetus for the Assembly bill that would charge ratepayers for its use.

The bill would not prohibit individuals from using electric means for heating or water heating in their own building, nor would it prohibit the state from offering incentives for builders. But by prohibiting mandating it, the bill leaves the discretion up to individual builders despite the need for communal effort to curb the effects of climate change and meet the state’s renewable energy goals.