An ‘energy choice’ bill has some lawmakers worried local government could lose power

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Though it’s dubbed an “energy choice” bill, a proposal now before the state Senate has lawmakers worried that Pennsylvania municipalities will lose some power over local decisions.

Members of the Senate Local Government and Environmental Resources and Energy committees met for a joint hearing Tuesday where they heard from stakeholders and discussed Senate Bill 275. Sponsored by Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, the bill claims to prevent discrimination against all forms of energy by prohibiting municipalities from creating policies that restrict sources.

“It seems like it may be a bit of a solution in search of a problem,” Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, said. “Since my time in the Senate, it’s been hammered into me that one size does not fit all in Pennsylvania, so I’m a little distressed by this sort of idea that we should decide for all boroughs, all municipalities, all cities, what might work for them or their citizens.”

Yaw said the bill would allow for a diverse pool of energy providers and prevent municipalities from limiting what kinds of energy developers and residents are permitted to use. 

Put simply, he said the bill would prevent municipalities from saying, “If you want to do this Mr. Developer or whoever you are, you must use a certain type of energy source or a certain fossil fuel.”

“I think that we have an obligation as legislators to be proactive,” Yaw said. “We’re not going to bury our heads in the sand that there are issues coming up that absolutely are limiting an individual’s choice of what energy they may or may not be able to use or may or may not be allowed in a certain development. That’s controlled by municipalities.”

Similar bills have been proposed in Indiana, Iowa and Kansas. Earlier this week, the Ohio House of Representatives passed legislation that prohibits local governments from limiting the use of natural gas and propane. Though worded neutrally, these kinds of bills have raised concerns that forms of energy with higher emissions — coal and gas — could be protected.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Pennsylvania Builders Association, Pennsylvania Propane Gas Association and Pennsylvania Petroleum Association have voiced support for the proposed bill in Pennsylvania, but Yaw was met with questions about how it could restrict local government and derail initiatives to adopt green practices.

“I’m sure that we’ve all heard the phrase ‘think globally, act locally,’” Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester, said. “There’s a reason that we say that when it comes to addressing the climate crisis, reducing emissions and transitioning to clean energy jobs. Local communities and local governments are uniquely positioned to play a leading role.”

Offering testimony, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs and the Pennsylvania Municipal League voiced similar concerns over the bill, its broad language and potential consequences.

“We like to call it local democracy, local decision-making,” Ronald Grutza, the boroughs association’s regulatory affairs director, told lawmakers — expressing concern with the “overly broad” positions and policies. “We’re particularly concerned about unintended consequences.”

In written comments, PennFuture Senior Director for Energy and Climate Rob Altenburg and Senior Director of Government Affairs Ezra Thrush voiced opposition to the proposal and urged lawmakers to oppose the bill. 

Though the bill “purports to be neutral” toward energy sources, they wrote that it could give preferential treatment to the gas industry, citing Act 13 of 2012 — which included rules for municipalities on oil and gas to preempt local zoning and included a section that required municipalities to allow oil and gas development in all zoning areas. In 2013, the state Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that portions of the law violated Pennsylvania’s constitution.

Citing Pennsylvania’s struggles to regulate harms caused by the fracking industry, Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, asked panelists if Pennsylvania was even capable of implementing a fair, equitable and safe energy policy.

Energy Association of Pennsylvania President and CEO Terrance Fitzpatrick said he thinks the state has been able to manage statewide regulation. As far as climate change, Fitzpatrick said a national strategy and international coordination are necessary to make an impact.

“There’s a climate change component to this, and there’s a consumer protection component to this conversation,” Muth said, adding Pennsylvania’s local industries vary across 67 counties.

Despite expressing disappointment with the hearing’s focus on clean and green energy, Yaw said he is willing to revise language to ease concerns. He did, however, double down on the need for a “diverse portfolio” of statewide energy sources.

“Energy is critical to our economy. You cannot have an economy without developing energy; that’s the bottom line,” he said.

Marley Parish
A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.