Tennessee passes bill that protects oil and gas industry : NPR


As cities across the country pursue their climate change goals, some states are passing laws to protect the oil and gas industry. The Tennessee Legislature just approved a bill that prevents local governments from banning fossil fuel projects or even regulating pipeline safety. Caroline Eggers of member station WPLN has this report.

CAROLINE EGGERS, BYLINE: Tennessee lawmakers passed the bill after Memphis shut down a planned oil pipeline through predominantly black neighborhoods and above the city’s drinking water. Among the opponents of the project was former Vice President Al Gore.


AL GORE: This pipeline project is an irresponsible and racist scam.

EGGERS: This was an unusual victory for environmental justice in a country where many black and brown neighborhoods have historically lived with disproportionate levels of pollution. And as Memphis environmentalist Justin Pearson says, Tennessee lawmakers were quick to respond.

JUSTIN PEARSON: By taking that power away and handing it over to executives who don’t care about Tennessee, who don’t live here, and who only use our land for their own gain.

EGGERS: During the legislative session, Republican Rep. Kevin Vaughan defended the bill with talking points about the fossil fuel industry.


KEVIN VAUGHAN: It gives certainty to the regulated community, local governments as well as the general public to ensure that the necessary critical infrastructure can be developed.

EGGERS: Focusing on the economic case for developing fossil fuel infrastructure, he said…


VAUGHAN: Markets, rather than governments, are driving future energy innovation and ensuring that all citizens of Tennessee have access to affordable and reliable energy.

EGGERS: But Vaughn ignored some important details, like the impact of fossil fuels on the climate, the environment and people. For example, the bill prevents cities from regulating or enforcing pipeline safety. Since gas pipelines can explode on rare occasions, neighbors often want them away. While the bill was explicit in some areas, such as the exclusion of solar power, it is vague in others. The bill never defines what would be considered a ban on the siting or development of fossil fuels. George Nolan, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said courts may have to interpret the text.

GEORGE NOLAN: There is general language in this bill that pipeline companies, energy companies could use to bully local governments into not standing up for their communities.

EGGERS: By intimidate, he means threatened with prosecution. This legislation follows a trend in Tennessee of predominantly white state leaders limiting the influence of local governments with large black populations, including in Memphis and Nashville. Sarah Houston, a Memphis water advocate, also spoke out against the fossil fuel infrastructure bill, saying it should be a national concern.

SARAH HOUSTON: Although we think it’s an industry bill that they’re trying to replicate in multiple states to just get their infrastructure out there without any local opposition.

EGGERS: Energy legislation like this has already been tested in Tennessee. After Berkeley, Calif., became the first city to ban natural gas service in new buildings, Tennessee became one of the first states to anticipate such action. Now, at least 21 states have this type of law. For NPR News, I’m Caroline Eggers in Nashville.

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