NASHVILLE, TN (AP) – The Tennessee Senate has passed a bill that would largely take away the ability of local governments to shut down oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects if they don’t want them in their cities and counties.
The Senate’s 22-7 vote on Thursday moves supermajority Legislature action from the GOP to the House, where the bill still needs to be considered by committee. Proponents view the proposal as protective of crucial energy resources.
The bill follows a victory for environmentalists in July, when Byhalia Connection canceled plans to build an oil pipeline through southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi. It would have been built above an aquifer which provides drinking water to 1 million people.
Justin J. Pearson, president of Memphis Community Against Pollution, helped lead the charge against this pipeline and opposes the new bill. He said the legislation helps oil and gas companies “exploit communities by taking away their ability to protect their own water, their homes, their schools, their churches.”
“The legislation goes against all conservative principles of the right to local control, giving self-determination and protection of people’s property and land,” he said.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ken Yager, a Republican from Kingston, said the pipelines pass through several cities and counties and are heavily regulated at the federal level, requiring public comment. Yager said the current legal setup may result in a patchwork of regulations that only serves to “harm our Tennessee economy.”
He also said his bill had some limitations. It does not specifically remove local authority over wind and solar projects. It does not prohibit local officials from taking action in the event of a conflict with a state-administered or approved program, including the protection of groundwater and drinking water.
“We’ve seen the experience nationwide and even in Tennessee where local governments are trying, through their ordinance or resolution, to micromanage some of the operation of this infrastructure,” Yager said.
Yager said the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee Fuel & Convenience Store Association asked him to bear the bill.
Memphis Democratic Caucus Leader Sen. Raumesh Akbari said the bill nullifies local decision-making on a key issue for communities.
“This is a very serious scenario where it could potentially have devastating effects in someone’s neighborhood,” Akbari said.
The Byhalia connection would have connected two major U.S. oil pipelines while traversing wetlands and under poor, predominantly black neighborhoods in South Memphis.
Pipeline lawyers were looking for eminent domain, long relied upon by governments to claim private ownership for projects for public use.
Last April, Byhalia Connection said it would stay the lawsuit after the Memphis City Council began considering an order that would have made it more difficult for the company to build the pipeline.
Activists held community rallies, including one attended by former Vice President Al Gore. The attorneys filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the approval of the pipeline by the US Army Corps of Engineers under a national permit. The Shelby County Commission refused to sell the pipeline builder two parcels of land on the planned route.
Byhalia Connection attributed the project’s cancellation to “lower U.S. oil production resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A company involved in the pipeline, Plains All American, said in a statement that it has no plans to move forward with the Byhalia connection.
Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee.