Pa. bill seeks to stop municipalities from restricting certain utilities

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natural gas flame burner

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a bill that would prevent local governments from restricting the type of energy its residents use.

Senate Bill 275 is being called an “energy choice” bill by its supporters. Opponents of the bill say it’s unnecessary and problematic.

The Senate Local Government and Environmental Resources and Energy committees held a hearing May 11 on the bill, introduced by Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming.

Origin

This bill is one of many being introduced across the country, in response to some cities prohibiting or limiting the use of natural gas in new buildings. Similar legislation has popped up in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas and other states this year. Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arizona and Louisiana enacted laws in 2020 prohibiting bans on natural gas.

Yaw said the bill is “energy neutral,” during the committee hearing. He said the legislation has the support of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Pennsylvania Builders Association, Pennsylvania Propane Gas Association and Pennsylvania Petroleum Association. The only groups opposed to it are PennFuture and the Sierra Club, he said.

“It doesn’t favor any particular type of energy, but it makes it open to everyone,” he said.

Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, said his interpretation of the bill was a bit different.

“It seems to be geared strictly only toward one utility, towards the natural gas utility,” Kearney said.”It seems it may be a bit of a solution in search of a problem.”

The movement against natural gas started in Berkley, California. The city council there passed the nation’s first ban on natural gas hookups in new buildings in 2019. Since then dozens of other cities, mostly in California, have passed similar restrictions. 

It’s not clear that any municipalities in Pennsylvania are considering such a ban, according to officials representing Pennsylvania’s township, borough and city governments, who spoke during the May 11 hearing.

Concerns

The bill language states that municipalities may not restrict or prohibit the connection or reconnection of a utility service based on the type of energy. Utility service is defined as “electric, manufactured gas, liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, hydrogen, fuel oil, a renewable source or any other source.”

Local governments officials had concerns about the bill’s broad language, some of which appears to be generically written and not meant specifically for Pennsylvania. Ron Grutza, senior director of regulatory affairs with the Pennsylvania Association of Boroughs, said there could be unintended consequences that would limit local control.

He gave the example of municipalities that regulate or prohibit the use of outdoor wood-fired boilers to control or enact local climate action plans to incentivize energy efficiency upgrades.

“So, we have concerns that Senate Bill 275 could preempt some of these ordinances, which are designed to protect the health and safety of our residents,” Grutza said. 

Municipalities in Pennsylvania also don’t have the authority to restrict the types of energy used by residents, Joseph Gerdes, director of government relations with the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, said, during his testimony.

“The courts have made it clear that if a provider of a utility service is regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, a municipality cannot regulate these services beyond the management of a right-of-way,” he said. 

Ohio

A similar bill passed the Ohio House on May 6. Rep. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, introduced House Bill 201 in March to prevent local governments from limiting the use of natural gas.

While he hasn’t heard of any Ohio cities considering such an action, Stephens told Farm and Dairy that he thought it best to address the issue before it became an issue. 

“It just made sense to me that if people have access to natural gas, if they like it, they should continue to have access to it without a government at any level saying they can’t,” Stephens said.

Ohio Farm Bureau testified in support of the bill, saying Farm Bureau supports a diversified energy portfolio. 

“Singling out any form of generation to ban is not good business policy for the state of Ohio,” Jenna Reese, director of state policy, wrote in her testimony.

The legislation was introduced in the Ohio Senate on May 11.

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