One State Becomes First in the Nation to Preempt City Natural Gas Bans

Arizona this week became the first state to preempt cities from banning natural gas in new constructions.

Arizona this week became the first state to preempt cities from banning natural gas in new constructions. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

No cities in Arizona have banned gas stoves or other residential uses of natural gas. The state wants to keep it that way.

Across the country, city leaders are seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with a novel policy: ban natural gas hook-ups in new construction. First adopted in liberal bastion Berkeley in July 2019, several other cities and counties in California quickly followed suit. The idea spread to the East Coast later that year when one Massachusetts city imposed its own ban.

Though no local government leaders in Arizona have proposed a ban on natural gas, the legislature proactively responded to the policies in other states by passing a bill to outlaw cities from enacting similar legislation. That legislation was signed into law last week by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, making the state the first to prohibit cities from banning natural gas.  

The law doesn’t specifically mention natural gas, but says that “a municipality may not impose a fine, penalty, or other requirement that has the effect of restricting a utility prover’s authority to operate or serve customers.” The law’s sponsor in the state House, Speaker Rusty Bowers, was clear about the intent of the bill, citing Berkeley’s ban on gas lines in new construction, while  stating that 42 other cities nationwide are considering similar legislation. 

Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, supported the bill. “Natural gas is clean, affordable and domestically abundant, and helps to stimulate economic growth as well as Arizona’s standing as we compete for economic development, nationally and internationally,” he said in a statement

The law also was supported by the state’s largest gas utilities, including Southwest Gas Holdings and UNS Energy Corporation. The groups argued that natural gas is what most people prefer to power stoves and that it is often cheaper than electric options to heat a home in winter.

Desert homes in Arizona, however, which use more energy for cooling than heating, typically only use gas for cooking and water heating. Some studies have shown that electric water heaters can be cheaper to operate than natural gas water heaters, depending on the cost of each power source in the local market. Natural gas prices in Arizona are about 45% more than the average rate paid by residential users in the rest of the United States.

Opponents of the new preemption law said that they want to see more housing developers shift away from fossil fuels in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas is often obtained by fracking, a practice that contributes to climate change when it releases huge amounts of methane into the air.

For that reason, environmental groups opposed the law. Sandy Bahr, the director of the Sierra Club’s Arizona chapter, said her organization has fought several recent preemption measures related to environmental policy, like plastic bag bans and laws that require buildings to disclose their energy use to potential tenants. “At a time when the federal and state governments really aren’t doing enough to combat climate change, some cities have created climate action plans,” she said. “None have proposed limits on natural gas, but you could see it being part of a comprehensive plan to reduce emissions. That tool has now been taken away.”

The fact that no city in Arizona had even considered a natural gas ban came up during legislative debate. Rep. Kirsten Engel, a Democrat, said during floor debate that the law was “incredibly hypothetical,” meant to prevent “the Berkleyization of Arizona—which I think there is not much of a realistic possibility will happen." 

Bahr said California is a frequent boogeyman in environmental debates in the state. “We’re not California—that’s a popular mantra here,” she said. “It’s a banal response.”

A recent survey from Chispa, an Arizona environmental justice organization, asked 600 state residents about who should have the final say about whether natural gas is allowed in new buildings. The vast majority of respondents said cities and counties should have that authority, with support for local control strongest amongst Republicans. Almost 80% of Republicans said the decision should be left to local officials. 

The Arizona League of Cities and Towns did not take a position on the bill, but the mayors of the state’s two largest cities both objected to the measure. Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said that the law “needlessly micromanages cities.” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said the bill undermines local authority. “City government is the branch of government closest to the people it serves,” she said in a statement. “We think pre-emption of local control in any form sets a bad precedent.”

It seems unlikely, however, that either city will challenge the new law. Previous efforts by cities to challenge environmental preemption measures—like the plastic bag ban—have failed in recent years.  

Bahr said that she was disappointed more mayors didn’t condemn the law, but she understands why they didn’t. “City governments are reluctant to challenge the legislature because they worry about losing state-shared revenue,” she said. “Even cities like Tempe that have been relatively progressive on environmental issues were quiet. In the legislative world, though, silence is complicity. It sends the message that they’re okay with this.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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