Legislation disallowing local bans on new buildings’ use of natural gas passed the Pennsylvania state House of Representatives Wednesday by a vote of 118 to 83.
A number of major U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and New York, have prohibited the supply of natural gas to most new buildings. The sponsor of the Pennsylvania bill, Rep. Tim O’Neal (R-Washington) said that while local governments in the Keystone State haven’t yet officially barred the fuel’s use, some climate-action plans generated by state and local governments call for such measures.
O’Neal referred to the Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan outlined by Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and another such plan designed by the Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT), an initiative of the University of Pittsburgh. Local-government entities that are members of CONNECT include Allegheny County, the city of Pittsburgh and 36 surrounding municipalities. That organization’s plan recommends that localities “require electric heating and appliances in new construction of residential buildings.”
In House floor remarks, O’Neal made a threefold case for his bill. First, the buildings to which natural-gas bans would apply receive their power supplies from regulated utility companies which service areas well beyond one municipality’s boundaries. Therefore, if a city, township or borough shuns an energy source, many living or working outside that jurisdiction would be subject to the regulation.
“The decisions that are being made at the local level with these municipal bans affect residents outside the municipal borders,” the representative said. “That’s the reason why only the state can make these decisions when it comes to energy policy and what should and shouldn’t be used throughout the commonwealth. So, when it really comes down to it, this is about preserving consumer choice when it comes to the fuel sources we want in our homes and in our businesses.”
Second, he cited data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) forecasting that, even in the absence of constraints on fossil-fuel use, carbon emissions from residential and commercial operations will decrease by nearly one quarter by 2050.
Finally, O’Neal addressed cost, saying the DEP has calculated the cost of powering a building without fossil fuels to be $501 per metric ton, whereas merely implementing energy-efficiency measures for gas-powered buildings would cost $90 to $250 less per metric ton. He also said a statewide ban on new natural-gas hookups would carry a yearly cost of about 5,100 jobs, again citing DEP figures.
Rep. Robert Freeman (D-Easton), minority chair of the House Local Government Committee, disputed O’Neal’s insistence that the legislation could make a difference in terms of local policy. Freeman argued that only the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission or state lawmakers could decide to restrict the use of fossil fuels.
“This bill is a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist and cannot exist under Pennsylvania law, given the lack of legal authority for a municipality to regulate such matters,” Freeman said. “The bill before us has been promoted largely by the gas industry in response to actions taken in other states where municipalities have different grants of authority. It is not applicable here in Pennsylvania.”
Freeman said, however, that O’Neal’s measure could undermine local efforts to pursue energy conservation and might impact the implementation of climate-action plans. He noted that Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future and other state environmental groups have come out against the legislation and that Wolf has declared he will veto it.
State Rep. Craig Williams (R-Chadds Ford), who has worked as a utility lawyer, countered that O’Neal’s legislation is necessary because it would prevent costly litigation between municipalities imposing fossil-fuel restrictions and utility companies fighting those restrictions. Once the companies prevail in court, given the invalidity of local bans on natural gas, they would be entitled under current law to recover legal costs from rates paid by consumers.
“That utility’s entitle to recover every single cent that it spends in litigation to have that ordinance declared unconstitutional and then they recover those costs—from you,” Williams said.
Representatives voted nearly along party lines, with State Rep. Bob Brooks (R-Lower Burrell) casting the sole Republican vote against the legislation. Seven Democratic representatives from southwestern Pennsylvania voted in favor: Frank Burns (Johnstown), Tony DeLuca (Penn Hills), Anita Kulik (Carnegie), Mark Longietti (Hermitage), Matzie (Ambridge), Sainato (New Castle) and Snyder (Waynesburg).
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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Tim O’Neal” by Tim O’Neal. Background Photo “Oil and Gas Pipeline” by Forest Guardians. CC BY-SA 3.0.