House passes bill blocking cities from banning natural gas

The state House of Representatives passed legislation last week that would block Ohio cities from limiting or banning residents from obtaining natural gas or propane services for their homes.

All House Republicans and two Democrats voted in favor of House Bill 201, which would undercut potential efforts from cities taking a go-at-it alone approach to climate change when the state won’t act.

No Ohio cities have undertaken any such effort, though some like Cleveland and Cincinnati have passed resolutions aimed at operating exclusively on renewable energy by 2025.

The bill would prevent cities from enacting any law or building code that “limits, prohibits, or prevents” residential, commercial, or industrial consumers within their boundaries from obtaining natural gas service.

Ohio is one of 23 states considering legislation to preempt cities from limiting new or existing gas hookups, a sweep of efforts backed by the natural gas industry. The state proposals follow a trend of progressive cities limiting gas distribution or incentivizing the electrification of buildings.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, described natural gas in a floor speech as an “affordable, reliable, and environmentally friendly” source of energy.

The legislation, he said, would stave off attempts from Ohio cities following the lead of places like Berkeley or San Francisco which have adopted some form of a new natural gas ban.

Democrats mostly sided with environmental advocates against the bill. Several pointed out that no city in Ohio is proposing any sort of ban on natural gas. Rep. Mary Lightbody, D-Westerville, said Ohio already gutted its clean energy portfolio mandates via House Bill 6 in 2019 (now the subject of a federal pay-for-play prosecution).

The state needs to be thinking about its clean energy future; House Bill 201, she said, only locks Ohio in further around fossil fuel extraction.

“We should be supporting clean energy industries and jobs and join other states and nations that are taking meaningful actions against climate change,” she said in a floor speech.

The legislation passed on a 65-32 vote, with Democratic Reps. Catherine Ingram and Joe Miller voting with Republicans in the majority.

Of the 23 natural gas bills introduced nationwide, 13 have become law and another three are awaiting gubernatorial signatures or vetoes, according to a count from Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, a building decarbonization advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Buildings, she said, are one of the largest drivers of cities’ greenhouse gas emissions. Using electricity for home heating and appliances is a cleaner approach.

“Our concern is that, [the bill] takes the authority away from local governments to encourage, through their codes and zoning powers … all-electric construction,” Cunningham said.

The gas industry argued the bill is necessary to prevent an unworkable patchwork of energy policy around the state.

“This, in turn, will keep Ohio from becoming just a hodge-podge of local ordinances where one community has access to natural gas and another, just a short distance away, does not,” said Matthew Hammond, president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, in written testimony to lawmakers.

About 65% of Ohio households use natural gas for home heating, followed by electricity (25%), propane (5%), and others, according the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission, which conducts policy research for lawmakers.

Burning natural gas results in fewer emissions for nearly all types of air pollutants and carbon dioxide than coal or oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. However, methane, which has a much stronger climate warming effect than carbon dioxide, leaks out in the process. Advocates warn that increasing natural gas demand will yield more capital-intensive infrastructure construction, which will give the industry more staying power.

Several large industry operators disclosed lobbying on HB 201 (records do not specify whether they support or oppose the bill) including:

Ascent Resources, which claims to be the eighth largest producer of natural gas in the U.S.

Williams Companies, a Fortune 500 natural gas transporter

TC Energy, which operates nearly 58,000 miles of natural gas pipelines

Columbia Gas of Ohio, which serves 1.4 million customers in the state

Miller, one of the two Democrats who voted in favor of the bill, said he supports incentivizing clean energy. HB 201, however, is too much stick and too little carrot.

“This bill that I voted on, that I agreed with, doesn’t give any incentive to get rid of natural gas,” he said. “I want to give incentives while still allowing the market to work.”

Stephens did not respond to an interview request.

“In Ohio, we are fortunate to have an abundant supply of natural gas,” he said in a statement last week. “It is an affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly source of energy for millions of people across our state.”

Jake Zuckerman is a reporter for the Ohio Capital Journal – ohiocapitaljournal.com.


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