With Atlanta sitting at 1,000 feet above sea level and a nearly five-hour drive to the beach, Georgia lawmakers on the whole don’t seem too concerned with sea level rise from climate change.
But many coastal municipal leaders are worried about it. Case in point: the Savannah City Council. This eight-member board last year unanimously passed Savannah’s 100% clean energy resolution, which says all electricity consumed in the city of Savannah will be generated from renewable energy by 2035, and all other energy needs will be generated from renewable energy by 2050.
City Council didn’t even get a plan written to reach those goals before lawmakers under the gold dome, with some nudging from fossil fuel companies, passed legislation that is expected to make it harder to quit using natural gas, a potent driver of climate change.
Local governments feel bill hurts coastal cities
House Bill 150 prevents local governments in Georgia from adopting building codes based on the source of energy they use. The legislation also applies to state agencies. The bill made its way through the house and passed the senate on Monday on a 34-15 vote. Both Savannah area senators, Democrat Lester Jackson and Republican Ben Watson, voted against it. It has to go back to the House for a motion to agree to the changes made by the senate committee. It’s likely to pass that hurdle and become law once the governor then signs it.
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“It really limits the municipalities on energy choices,” Savannah Alderman Nick Palumbo said earlier this month. “We are a home rule state, where local government knows best. And we’re advocating to make sure that it stays that way so that your city has a choice in their energy choices. And House Bill 150 would take away that right. It would preempt municipalities from being able to make those energy choices and force you to take energy, like coal or natural gas that maybe residents don’t want into the future.”
Atlanta Gas Light doesn’t see it that way.
“Natural gas is foundational to realizing a cleaner energy future, helping communities achieve their economic and climate goals while still maintaining reliability and affordability,” spokesperson Mekka Parish wrote in an email. “Atlanta Gas Light and its parent company, Southern Company Gas, support HB150 and similar legislation around the country that recognizes the importance of natural gas to driving growth and development and maintaining choice for local communities.”
In February, Palumbo and others went to the capitol to voice their opposition to HB 150 and to an identical bill in the senate, Senate Bill 102, which didn’t proceed to a vote this session.
Alex Muir of One Hundred Miles recalled that Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Athens, said before voting for the bill that “we’re all in favor of local control until locals get out of control.”
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Like Savannah, Athens has passed a clean energy resolution.
Both Muir and Palumbo said the chairman of the Committee on Regulated Industries and Utilities, Republican Bill Cowsert of Athens, discounted the impact cities would have on global warming even if they did decrease their carbon footprints.
“(Cowsert) said, ‘you can’t change the problem on your own as one little community,” Muir told a Facebook Live rally against the bill that Palumbo organized Wednesday. “And that’s a direct quote, which I find pretty interesting, because he’s representing an area where they passed a 100% renewable resolution.
“And he went on to say one city isn’t going to change the temperature of the earth by one centimeter. I’m going to go ahead and ignore the fact that he doesn’t seem to understand we measure temperature in degrees and not centimeters. Because what I think is really important here for all of us to be focusing on is that he’s belittling the impact that his constituents and the rest of us in Georgia can have in addressing an issue that we care about.”
Bill would curb climate initiatives on the local level
HB 150 is part of a multi-state strategy to pre-empt clean energy measures in cities. As the Natural Resources Defense Council reported in January, the fossil fuel industry backed bills proposed in 14 states this year:
Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah that will prevent local decision-making over the fuels used to power homes and other buildings.
Along with Savannah and Athens, Atlanta, Augusta, and the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston have adopted measures committing to a goal of 100% clean energy tied to certain target dates in the future. Elsewhere around the country more than 40 cities have committed to banning natural gas in new construction in an effort to encourage clean energy. Natural gas, while once regarded as an important “bridge fuel” to renewables like solar and wind, is cleaner than fuels like coal but still releases carbon into the atmosphere.
Along with Palumbo and Muir, representatives from conservation groups around the state including the Georgia Conservancy, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Dogwood Alliance, the Climate Reality Project, Sierra Club and Environment Georgia spoke at the rally, which can be viewed at www.facebook.com/NickForSavannah
The bill includes language that prohibits any state agency from restricting a fuel source. That means it “would force local governments, state agencies, the Atlanta airport, state colleges and universities and many more state entities to continue to connect to fossil fuels now and in the future,” said Jennette Gayer, executive director of Environment Georgia.
“This is what the gas industry wants,” she said. “The gas industry is spending probably millions and millions of dollars in over a dozen states. I think we’re up to 20 states right now, to make sure that moves to electrify and make buildings cleaner are unsuccessful. And that’s because they see the writing is on the wall. Solar energy, renewable energies are becoming cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, and gas and gas is likely to become more expensive. And so they know they need to lock as many people in now to dirty gas infrastructure as they can.”
Savannahian Kevin Ionno, chair of the Climate Reality Project of Coastal Georgia, said before the rally that after succeeding in passing a clean energy resolution in Savannah, this bill makes him angry.
“You know, there are so many reasons why this is wrong,” he said. “It’s a power play by the Southern Company, Georgia Power and all the subsidiaries with it. It’s a power play by the Gas Association. And it’s setting Georgia on the wrong track. It’s setting it to go the opposite direction from where it needs to go, if it’s going to play its role in protecting its citizens from the effects of climate change, as well as making a contribution to the country and to the whole world.”
Georgia Power supported House Bill 150 because it “promotes and maintains a diversified mix of energy supply options for local communities,” said John Kraft, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based utility.
The bill passed on Monday after an attempt to add a five-year sunset amendment failed. Sen. Elena Parent, D-DeKalb County, offered the amendment as a way to avoid locking in policy that may not be relevant in a few years given the dynamic nature of the energy industry.
“We don’t have fracking or coal mines here in Georgia but we do have solar,” Parent said. “Prohibiting us from embracing new technology and a smarter energy policy makes no sense.” The amendment failed 19 to 31 and the legislation ultimately passed.
After the senate vote Monday, Palumbo vowed to keep working on the issue.
“We will be back at them next year with something to untie the knot,” he said.
Mary Landers is the environment and health reporter at the Savannah Morning News. Contact her at 912-655-8295. Twitter: @MaryLandersSMN
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