A bill to limit how local governments in Georgia can impose what energy sources their businesses, houses and other buildings can use passed out of the state House of Representatives on Monday.
Sponsored by state Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, the bill would block city and county governments from prohibiting service connections to local houses and businesses “based upon the type or source of energy or fuel to be delivered.”
Williamson cast his local-ban bill as a measure to give communities more choice in whether to burn natural gas or alternative fuels, rather than letting city and county governments limit options.
“Now’s not the time to take away consumers’ choice,” Williamson said from the House floor on Monday. “Nothing precludes local governments from incentivizing your citizens toward the energy policies you deem best for your citizenry.”
Environmentalists and local-control proponents argue the bill would trample on the governing powers of city and state officials and create hurdles for communities to build their own defenses against the predicted harms of climate change.
“We cannot stop technology today based on a hypothetical,” said state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates. “This is a bad bill and it sets a bad precedent.”
No cities in Georgia have enacted any policies yet to restrict energy sources, Williamson noted. Atlanta, Augusta, Athens, Savannah and Clarkston have passed resolutions setting long-term goals of converting their buildings to 100% clean energy.
“What we don’t want to do is be hampered in this effort,” Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said after Monday’s vote. “For the General Assembly to take a potential tool out of the hands of local government flies in the face of local control.”
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said the bill didn’t even originate with the Georgia legislature but from out of state.
“This is a bill from the gas industry serving a very limited special interest … an attempt to preempt local government,” he said. “We deserve the right to make decisions we deem are in our own best interest.”
The bill’s supporters say restrictions on local decisions could stave off economic hardships for residents and businesses like restaurants that rely on natural gas, which they argue contributes less to carbon emissions than sources like oil and coal.
“I’m not even sure that the Waffle House would even exist if we didn’t pass this bill,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton. “We’re all for local control until locals get out of control.”
State Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta, pointed to electrical grid failures that have affected millions of people in Texas during recent winter storms as what could happen if cities and counties move to disrupt the kind of energy sources being used to fuel local power plants.
“To treat the public fairly on providing electricity is not through allowing the cities to set portfolios [but] allowing the people to do that,” Parsons said on Monday. “I fear that what these cities want to do would unbalance the grid so badly that we would have chaos without bad weather.”
Critics highlighted how local officials from Atlanta, Savannah and Athens have opposed the bill, arguing that natural gas is still a heavy contributor to greenhouse gases that scientists overwhelmingly agree is driving global climate change and rising sea levels.
“From wildfires to record temperatures to storms to flooding, we’re already seeing the impacts of climate change,” said state Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta. “If a local government wants to be innovative 15 years from now when renewables are affordable, reliable and readily accessible, we are prohibiting them from doing that.”
The bill passed by a 103-62 vote largely along party lines, with some Democrats voting in favor. It now heads to the Georgia Senate.
This story has been updated to include additional quotes from Athens’ and Savannah’s mayors, as well as state Rep. Don Parsons of Marietta.