Pennsylvania lawmakers consider preempting local utility ordinances

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Some Pennsylvania lawmakers said Tuesday the state should advance legislation that prevents local officials from enacting policies that limit energy choices.

Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, said he sponsored Senate Bill 275 in response to a growing national trend of local officials discriminating against utility connections based on the source of the energy provided.

He also pushed back against the insinuation that fossil fuel advocates pushed for the bill, noting that clean energy lobbyists exist, too.

“We didn’t just pull this out of the air,” he said. “Constituents came to us and said this is a problem. This has already taken roots elsewhere nationally.”

The Energy Association of Pennsylvania said local officials in California, Massachusetts and Washington have banned access to certain utilities as an extension of pro-renewable energy policies. The same hasn’t occurred in Pennsylvania, so far.

But Yaw isn’t willing to wait for the problem to fester.

“Let’s address this up front and not wait until it reaches a critical mass state,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we are doing here.”

Others said it’s a solution – crafted by natural gas lobbyists – in search of a problem.

“During my time in the Senate, it’s been hammered into me that one size does not fill all in Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Springfield. “So it’s a little distressing to me that we should decide for all boroughs, townships and cities what’s best.”

Kearney, who chairs the Senate Local Government Committee, made the comments during a joint hearing with the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee to consider a measure that would create uniform utility access regulations, instead of a patchwork of ordinances that exist across the state’s 2,500 municipalities.

Kearney was just one of several Democrats and testifiers to question the motivation of the bill. Others said the language contained within was “overly broad” andcould lead to unintended consequences.

“I don’t know why we are even taking the time today or why the bill was even introduced,” said Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-Lower Makefield. “In my experience as a former township supervisor, it just strikes me as odd.”

Ron Grutza, senior director of regulatory affairs for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, said SB 275’s language could undermine existing building codes.

“Would utility street opening ordinances be considered having the effect of prohibiting natural gas service? Certainly, these ordinances do not prohibit the connection to utility services,” he said. “However, with a broadly written preemption in this legislation these ordinances may be seen as a regulatory barrier to utility services.”

He said he’s unaware of any municipalities considering limiting utility access, though he does know many have adopted climate action plans.

More than half of the state’s homes use natural gas as a heating source, according to the Energy Association of Pennsylvania. But Grutza said municipalities’ efforts to encourage cleaner energy usage focus on programs that incentivize residential and commercial properties to “make their own changes.”

He pointed to the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy Program, or C-PACE, established in 2018 to offer low-interest, long-term loans to business owners interested in building or upgrading their establishments with technologies that promote energy efficiency and cleaner air and water.

“The C-PACE program represents the type of innovate tools counties and municipalities are using today to encourage, not mandate, energy efficient commercial buildings,” he said.

Yaw said he’s willing to tighten the bill’s language, but held firm against criticism that the measure itself was unnecessary.

“I’ve never heard people argue so vehemently for or against something that they say is not needed,” he said. “And I think that, clearly, the commentary that says ‘oh well we’re against the bill,’ indicates to me … there are municipalities that are actually thinking about doing this today.”





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