Bill to allow N.J. utilities to use renewable gas stutters in committee

Objections from environmentalists drive bill sponsor to pull it from a vote, leaving its fate uncertain

By: - December 1, 2023 7:06 am

Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex) speaks to the Assembly’s environment committee at the Statehouse in Trenton on Nov. 30, 2023, about a bill he sponsored that would allow utilities to add hydrogen to gas distribution systems. Environmentalists oppose the bill. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

A state lawmaker who wants to allow utilities to mix hydrogen into their distribution systems to heat homes and businesses pulled his bill from a vote on Thursday after an outcry from environmentalists, who warned the strategy is untested, expensive, and unsafe.

But after the Assembly’s environment committee heard over two hours of testimony mostly against the bill, Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex) told the New Jersey Monitor that he was undiscouraged. Opposition to the bill “does not destroy it, in my mind,” he said.

“There’s always two sides of a coin, and I believe that there’s going to be some compromises in the bill. I still believe, wholeheartedly, that we still need this as part of the matrix for our clean energy,” Karabinchak said. “This is an investment for our future. Sometimes it wins. Sometimes it loses. But if you don’t take that step, you’ll never know. And theoretical stuff, to me, doesn’t mean anything. I’m a realist.”

The bill would direct the state Board of Public Utilities to establish a program to encourage utilities to use renewable natural gas, which is also known as RNG or biomethane, and regulate the cost to ratepayers. RNG is a biogas produced by mixing natural gas with methane emitted from places like landfills, sewage treatment plants, and farms, and it can reduce the impact of organic waste. Methane is a climate change-fueling greenhouse gas that can produce hydrogen.

Environmentalists and civil rights groups alike opposed the bill, sending two letters to the Assembly’s environment committee, which was scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday, imploring them to reject it.

The Board of Public Utilities also requested tweaks to the bill, Karabinchak said, although he didn’t detail their objections. And state Rate Counsel Brian Lipman, who advocates for ratepayers statewide, expressed “significant concerns,” largely centered on cost, in a letter sent to the committee Wednesday.

Critics say hydrogen leaks more easily than natural gas, so mixing it into natural gas systems could increase emissions that fuel climate change, air pollution, and extreme weather.

They also cited safety concerns, saying New Jersey lacks the infrastructure for such a transition and hydrogen is extremely flammable and worsens air quality when burned.

“It’s not clear whether any existing infrastructure can contain hydrogen without experiencing physical degradation,” said Mary Barber, New Jersey director of the Environmental Defense Fund. “That’s the science, that’s where we are. Hydrogen molecules are smaller and lighter than the natural gas that the utility systems were designed for. It can escape more easily and permeate more materials, including plastic pipes, risking explosive-level concentrations, climate-warming emissions, and lost product that customers will pay for.”

Critics of the bill argued it’s a bad move in the bigger picture of the state’s green-energy agenda. Mixing hydrogen and natural gas prolongs the state’s reliance on fossil fuels, slowing climate progress and New Jersey’s transition to a clean, renewable energy future, they said.

“What this bill will do is divert funds away from real clean energy projects and strengthening the electric grid,” said John Richman, environment chair of Blue Wave New Jersey. “We will not have the resources to pay for real clean energy solutions if we are subsidizing gas utilities to produce dirty gas.”

Environmental activist Paula Rogovin unfurled a large blank check made out to the “fossil fuel industry” when she testified.

Environmental activist Paula Rogovin testified before the Assembly’s environment committee on Nov. 30, 2023, against a bill that would allow utilities to mix hydrogen into natural gas distribution systems. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

“It’s a giveaway. It’s a subsidy for the fossil fuel industry. We don’t need that,” Rogovin said. “Why on earth would you even consider passing legislation that subsidizes RNG, which will cause even more harm to children, grandchildren, neighbors here in New Jersey? It would cause even more harm to children and adults in environmental justice communities already overburdened by pollution and illnesses, such as asthma and other lung diseases.”

Mixing hydrogen into the natural gas supply also would require new pipelines and other infrastructure that’s not now in place, critics said. Utilities likely would pass their costs onto customers, who also would have to replace their appliances to accommodate hydrogen-mixed fuel, they said.

The bill would benefit for-profit companies and their wealthy shareholders, at the expense of residents, critics charged.

“It is a hidden energy tax that is going to come on the backs of families and businesses in the state of New Jersey to subsidize big for-profit corporations,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Policymakers looking to use RNG should focus on “strategic and high-impact uses, such as industrial applications and hard-to-electrify sectors,” instead of residential uses, said Eric Miller of the National Resources Defense Council.

“Think special chemical manufacturing, steel production, heavy industry that needs a lot of energy. That’s where a lot of the green hydrogen is going,” Miller said. “In contrast, the use of hydrogen to cook an omelet is considered a low-value use, and the federal government is not supporting that pathway for decarbonization.”

Critics urged lawmakers instead to focus on energy efficiency, building electrification, and powering homes with solar, wind, and other clean energies.

Representatives from industry and labor groups, including the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, South Jersey Industries, and the New Jersey Association of Pipe Trades, exhorted lawmakers to pass the bill.

Ray Cantor of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association called critics “anti-fossil fuel and anti-choice.”

Kate Gibbs, deputy director of the Engineers Labor Employer Cooperative Local 825, pointed out that electrifying buildings, which is one of the priorities in Gov. Phil Murphy’s clean energy agenda, requires new infrastructure and will be pricey too.

“We support an all-of-the-above approach to energy policy and believe that the best way to ensure that energy here in New Jersey is affordable, reliable, and feasible is to make sure that government isn’t picking winners and losers but that the best technologies rise to the top,” Gibbs said.

It’s the second time lawmakers have tried to pass the bill, which the same sponsors introduced in May 2021. It failed to advance past committee in that legislative session and drew similar protests from environmentalists then. Besides Karabinchak, Assembly members Louis Greenwald (D-Camden) and Nancy Munoz (R-Union) are also prime sponsors.

Karabinchak, who’s also pushed other renewable energies like solar, wind, and waves, said he’s not sure if he’ll push for lawmakers to pass the bill in the current lame-duck session, which ends Jan. 9.

The Senate version of the bill remains stalled in that body’s environment committee.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.