Bill prohibiting local bans on natural gas service advances

As cities nationwide work to decarbonize, gas bans become a flashpoint

By: - February 11, 2022 12:03 am

A gas ring on a domestic stove powered by natural gas (Photo Illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A bill that would prohibit local governments from banning natural gas is moving through the Republican-controlled House despite a hiccup last week. 

House Bill 1257, put forward by House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, would forbid local governments from approving any measure that would limit or prohibit consumers from using natural gas.

Kilgore told the House Commerce and Energy Committee that the legislation is needed because the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a 2020 law championed by Democrats that committed Virginia’s electric grid to becoming carbon free by 2050, “improperly removed natural gas from the Virginia market.” 

Kilgore was the only Republican in the House to vote for the VCEA. 

“We need energy diversification. Natural gas is essential to low-carbon, low-cost home heating, industrial processes, restaurants and other commercial business,” he said. “I just think this was something that we just really didn’t think through.” 

The committee approved the proposal, which had briefly died Feb. 3 due to a shortage of Republicans present, on a party-line vote. The bill also allows retail choice for gas customers and sets requirements for the discontinuation of gas service by a public entity, including notification of customers three years in advance. 

Natural gas bans — and bans on such bans — have become increasingly controversial in recent years as efforts to combat climate change have grown in popularity. 

Bans on new natural gas hookups have primarily been instituted by cities eager to speed up their timeline for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Berkeley, Calif., was the earliest city in the U.S. to impose such a ban, which has so far been upheld in court. This December, New York City became the largest U.S. city to ban gas heating, stoves and water heaters in new buildings. 

None of the prohibitions have extended to existing hookups, and to date no states have adopted sweeping gas restrictions. That may soon change: New York Democrats plan to propose a statewide prohibition on new gas hookups this year. 

In Virginia, gas bans made little headway until recently. This September, Richmond City Council passed a climate resolution that among its many provisions committed the body “to working with the city’s administration on an equitable plan to phase out reliance on gas and shift to accelerated investment in city-owned renewable energy.” 

Furthermore, the resolution said, the council “hereby recognizes that the continued operation of the city’s gas utility is an obstacle to the city’s goal of net-zero emissions.” 

But while the resolution turned heads, it was also non-binding — that is, it didn’t require City Council to take any concrete steps to divest the city’s gas utility or restrict new gas hookups. 

Such moves are likely to face fierce opposition from the gas industry, which has launched aggressive lobbying campaigns in state capitols urging legislatures to pass laws preempting local governments from passing bans or restrictions on the fuel’s use. 

At a hearing on Kilgore’s proposal for Virginia last week, representatives of numerous gas utilities and trade groups turned out to support the bill. 

“The consumers in Virginia and our businesses and industries are demanding natural gas service, and we think this bill will help with that,” said David Clarke, a lawyer with Eckert Seamans who was lobbying on behalf of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association. 

“Any move by a city or county to ban a particular fuel source would be threatening to leave the citizens with much more expensive heating and cooking options that do not provide the resiliency and safety that all citizens need in times of prolonged power outages,” Corey Krill, manager of state energy policy for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, told the House committee. 

Others representing businesses such as Gerdau Steel, which operates a plant in Dinwiddie County and is Virginia’s largest steel producer, and the Virginia Poultry Federation contended that gas is essential to keeping their operations affordable. 

Environmental groups, however, argued that Kilgore’s bill intruded on local powers. 

“This does seem a little bit of an overreach,” said Narissa Turner of the Virginia Conservation Network. Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the legislation would “fly in the face of the principle of limited government, deferring to local discretion and local decision-making.” 

While no representatives for the City of Richmond testified on the bill during committee hearings, city officials are aware of the legislation. 

Council member Katherine Jordan said it was “concerning that there’s an effort to take away the agency of localities to regulate utilities for the benefit of public health, affordability and environmental sustainability.” 

“I hope the General Assembly will reaffirm its confidence in localities to make these critical decisions on behalf of our residents,” she told the Mercury.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.