Reflecting a sudden national trend, legislation to prohibit municipalities from regulating utility connections within their boundaries is advancing in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Two bills – both currently before the State House – would prohibit local governments in Pennsylvania from restricting, prohibiting or otherwise discriminating against a utility based on the source of energy that powers it.
Supporters say the bill seeks to protect the choice of local consumers. But opponents have argued that the bills are a transparent attack on municipal climate action to limit carbon-intensive utilities.
So far, only a handful of liberal urban strongholds, such as San Jose, Calif., Have actually banned natural gas utility connections in new construction. Other cities and states have adopted building codes that require or offer incentives for electrification, with a few exceptions, according to at S&P Global.
But in a counterattack, nineteen states passed legislation preventing local governments from passing such laws. Five other states, including Pennsylvania, are considering similar measures.
The House proposal is sponsored by State Representative Tim O’Neal, R-Washington. O’Neal said he spoke to utility companies about the language change bill, but came up with the idea himself after reading news about utility policies other cities.
“We’ve seen pre-emption work in other situations where local municipalities making a decision didn’t make sense to the Commonwealth as a whole,” O’Neal told Capital-Star.
In fact, no local government in Pennsylvania has yet adopted such a policy. Philadelphia posted a to study Seeking how to adapt its municipal gas service to climate change., But the city says it has no plans to ban natural gas.
The national pre-emption effort was led in part by the American Gas Association, a trading group for gas utilities, according to the Washington Post. Emails acquired by WHY-FM show that the AGA, private utilities UGI and Columbia Gas, and despite open opposition from the city, the Philadelphia gas utility all helped draft Senate legislation. O’Neal’s proposal is worded in the same way.
David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, an environmental group, said all the preemption of the debate is an affront to self-determination, even though a Pennsylvania municipality bans even natural gas connections.
âThe most liberal municipalities don’t do it, but let’s say they do. They are going to do it implicitly on the idea that this is what their constituents want and support, âMasur told Capital-Star. “You won’t see it in places like Snyder County because it’s not the policy of their constituents.”
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He also highlighted the potential real-world consequences for the state’s greenhouse gas emissions if the bill becomes law. The state is already one of the country’s main carbon emitters.
According to an April 2021 PennEnvironment report, the electrification of buildings in Pennsylvania would reduce the state’s carbon emissions over the next 30 years by 13.6 million metric tons. Such cuts will be unattainable, Masur said, if the proposal becomes law.
Amy Sturges, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, which represents 117 towns, boroughs, townships and other local governments in the Commonwealth, said the bill could also unintentionally prevent local governments from adopting action plans for the climate.
The league, Sturges said, is concerned that the bill is worded so broadly. If passed, courts could interpret its ban on discrimination against an energy source as preventing local governments from offering incentives for energy-efficient appliances, refreshing homes or for drive less.
âWe shouldn’t discourage this type of local action,â Sturges told Capital-Star. âThis is where local governments can be innovative and work with their communities, their business leaders, their universities and find ways to solve problems. “
There is an exemption in the bill – it excludes zoning as an authorized use by the local authority to limit certain sources of energy.
âIf there was an ordinance in a municipality that dealt with the installation of solar panels, that could not be considered discrimination,â Sturges said.
Sturges added that she did not believe that most cities could, under current state law, ban gas hookups if they wished. That power, she said, rested with the State Utilities Commission.
A spokesperson for the commission declined to comment on the pending legislation.
The two versions of the proposal are pending in the lower house pending a follow-up. The senatorial version was adopted by the upper house in October 35-15.
Such a margin is greater than the two-thirds majority required to override a veto, which may be necessary. In an email, Elizabeth Rementer, spokesperson for Governor Tom Wolf, said the Democratic chief executive was opposed to the bill.
“This would hamper a municipality’s ability to consider clean energy options, especially municipalities with local climate action plans,” Rementer said.
This is not the first push from the General Assembly to prevent municipalities from exercising local control over environmental issues. In 2017, Wolf vetoed a bill that would have banned local governments from taxing or banning plastic bags.
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A temporary pre-emption measure lasting one year was then slipped into the 2019 state budget. This was extended again in 2020, but eventually expired in June. A lawsuit challenging the way the General Assembly adopted the temporary ban is In progress.
Aside from environmental issues, local government preemption is also being fought in Harrisburg to prevent cities from raising minimum wages or implementing tougher gun laws.