Ga. lawmakers push bills to limit local government sway over energy rules

Some state lawmakers want to block cities and counties from being able to ban certain energy uses, like natural gas. But others question whether one day it might make sense for local governments to require renewable energy sources, like solar. Mischa Keijser/Getty Images

No Georgia city has passed an ordinance that dictates what energy sources can be used to power local homes and businesses – and some state lawmakers want to keep it that way.

Still, Savannah Alderman Nick Palumbo and other city officials oppose a state proposal targeting the kind of ordinances seen in other states that they argue would tie the hands of local officials who they say are best situated to act in their community’s interests.

The coastal city is one of five Georgia cities that have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint in the coming years. Savannah, which unanimously pledged last spring to achieve 100% clean energy by 2035, is in the middle of developing a “clean-energy action plan” now.

“It makes it impossible for any city to achieve that goal because it forces them to purchase a product maybe that cities don’t want any more in the future,” Palumbo said in an interview Monday about potential state intervention.

“And what’s troubling about (the bill) is it really removes that choice today and into the future, where your energy provider can then determine what’s best for you instead of the other way around,” he said.

Palumbo described the Savannah pledge as a community-driven commitment in response to the threats of sea level rise and climate change. He likened the coastal city’s action plan to other local rules and regulations, like zoning.

“Savannah is on the front lines, and, frankly, the entire state of Georgia is on the hook to help us,” Palumbo told lawmakers Monday.

A version of the bill has been filed in both chambers. The House version sponsored by Rep. Bruce Williamson, a Monroe Republican, received a public hearing Monday, drawing opposition from several city officials across the state, environmentalists and an Athens builder who says he no longer connects new homes to gas. The measure found support among the gas industry lobbyists, the Georgia Farm Bureau and representatives for restaurants and realtors.

“I support local control – home rule – but from a customer standpoint, based on the energy mix that is available in Georgia, why would I allow for my municipality to limit my opportunity to be able to have the source of energy of my choice based on the technologies that are available today,” Rep. Derrick Jackson, a Tyrone Democrat, said Monday.

There is no such ordinance in Georgia today, but bans on new gas hookups have emerged in California and other states, triggering a wave of bills in GOP-controlled states that seek to preemptively block local bans.

State Rep. Chuck Martin, an Alpharetta Republican who presided over Monday’s hearing, said he was concerned local governments could force businesses to switch from an energy source – such as gas – and then require them to eat the expense of converting.

“That is a big fear to me,” Martin said.

But Rep. David Dreyer, an Atlanta Democrat, questioned why lawmakers would limit local decision makers when it might make sense one day for them to require residents and business owners to use renewable energy sources. Atlanta has committed to a clean energy goal.

“I just want to ask you if it’s a good idea to do something now that could still be in place 20 years from now when solar and renewable sources could be a lot cheaper,” Dreyer said.

Stephen Loftin, a lobbyist for a coalition of natural gas providers in Georgia, argued that residents should still be left to make that decision on their own.

“The bans are always related to trying to meet a future carbon free or net zero goal –2040, 2050, pick a date down the road,” Loftin said. “And while the goals themselves are well-intentioned – we want to see a lower carbon future – these local ordinances banning natural gas, banning propane fuel, banning these types of fuels ignore the fact that natural gas and propane are clean burning fuels.”

But opponents of the bill argue that while natural gas is cleaner than coal, it can have harmful effects on indoor air quality and that it still poses significant environmental concerns due to the construction of pipelines.

“This bill, and there are other similar bills that have been introduced around the country, seem to anticipate Georgia turning into California,” said Jennette Gayer, executive director of Environment Georgia, speaking on behalf of the Georgia Water Coalition.

“And what I’d urge the committee to do is to oppose this legislation, let our communities move forward with crafting a really new and exciting energy future in our own very unique Georgia way that many of us probably can’t even imagine today.”