Ga. House OKs bill to prohibit local bans against natural gas hookups

Georgia lawmakers are proposing to prohibit local governments from banning new construction hookups to natural gas and other old energy sources. Environmentalists and officials from Georgia cities pursuing clean energy goals say they worry that rising seas threaten to do permanent harm to the state's barrier islands. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder (St. Simons Island, 2019)

Officials from a handful of Georgia cities across the state are decrying legislation that would stop them from ever banning certain types of fuel connections, like natural gas hookups, as they try to hash out plans to reduce carbon emissions locally.

That measure, sponsored by Republican Rep. Bruce Williamson, cleared the House of Representatives Monday with a 103-to-62 vote. At least six Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the bill.

The proposal now goes to the Senate, where a similar version is already teed up for discussion in committee Tuesday.

Williamson and other GOP backers paint the bill as a consumer choice initiative that will jump ahead of any push that may later emerge in City Halls across Georgia to limit the types of fuel connections allowed in homes and businesses.

But environmentalists and officials from cities pursuing clean energy goals said lawmakers are trying to undercut local leaders who are closest to the community, even as they say banning gas connections is not currently on their agendas but could make sense in the future.

Critics of legislation that would prevent local governments from banning new structures from connecting to old sources of energy say lawmakers are bending to the will of the gas industry. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

“None of us are standing out on the curb right now with pipe cutters,” Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz said in a Monday afternoon press conference held by Environment Georgia, an advocacy group.

Rather, Girtz said lawmakers were removing “a potential tool out of the box of local government.”

Critics say lawmakers are bending to the will of the gas industry. The legislation has also found support among restaurants, real estate groups, the Georgia Farm Bureau and other industry interests.

“I’m not even sure that the Waffle House would even exist if we didn’t pass this bill,” said Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Dalton Republican and restaurant owner. “Natural gas is important for my industry and for all restauranteurs.

“We’re all for local control until locals get out of control,” Carpenter added.

While no Georgia city has proposed prohibiting certain kinds of power connections, cities in other states have, sparking a wave of preemptive bills in GOP-controlled states.

A handful of cities in Georgia, including Savannah and Athens, have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint in the coming years.

“(This bill) is the result of five out of 535 governments that have passed publicly supported resolutions committing to a transition to clean energy – or 0.9% of local governments in Georgia,” said Rep. Karla Drenner, an Avondale Estates Democrat.

“Passing a resolution to move towards something is different from doing it,” she added. “Don’t you have to have the technology to provide the service before you can discontinue the use of another resource? This bill’s sole premise is based on hypotheticals, not substantive policy changes.”

Rep. David Dreyer, an Atlanta Democrat, said he worries the state’s barrier islands, like Tybee Island, will not be around for future generations because of sea level rise.

“From wildfires to record temperatures to storms to flooding, we’re already seeing the first effects of climate change,” Dreyer said. “And this is caused by CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s beyond debate.

“I heard earlier that natural gas is cleaner. That ‘er’ is doing a whole lot of work,” he said.

Williamson, who lives in Monroe, called the state’s coast and marshes a “fantastic jewel” but dismissed the concerns that the bill would hurt local efforts to address climate change.

“Just like the Bible talks about in Ecclesiastes, there’s a season and a rhythm and a time to get things done, and now’s not the time to take away consumer’s choice,” Williamson said.

“Nothing precludes local governments from incentivizing your citizens to endorse the energy policies you think best for your local citizenry,” he added.

But critics worry that under the bill’s broad approach, proponents of an unfavored fuel source could argue local incentives have the effect of a prohibition.

“They say that they’re sticking up for the little guy,” Savannah Alderman Nick Palumbo said of the bill’s supporters. “But I don’t see them providing flood insurance to the people in Brunswick who can no longer get flood insurance.

“I don’t see them stepping up to the plate to come down to St. Marys, Georgia, when we’re going to have to relocate the entire city because of sea level rise. I don’t see them coming down to Tybee Island or Savannah to help us lift our houses because of daytime flooding.”