A bill working its way through the N.C. General Assembly would prevent local governments from banning natural gas in new construction or renovations even though no North Carolina governments have taken such an action.
House Bill 220 also revives a provision from earlier in the session that would limit the public’s ability to review records about electric, water and other critical infrastructure, as well as state prisons. The bill is in the Senate Rules Committee, which would need to approve it before the full Senate could take a vote.
Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, told a Senate committee earlier this month that the bill is straightforward and prevents local governments from overreaching. He said, “What it does is provide the option for consumers to choose the best energy source for them in their homes.”
Cities in California and Massachusetts have banned natural gas in new construction, citing the benefit to the climate and the need to meet emissions reduction targets. Those local actions have resulted in a nationwide effort to prevent future bans, with many of the bills appearing similar to North Carolina’s.
But Scott Mooneyham of the N.C. League of Muncipalities said it is “highly questionable” whether existing law even gives local governments the authority to ban the use of natural gas. Mooneyham, the league’s director of political communication, said he is not aware of any municipalities discussing a ban of natural gas, much less passing one.
In fact, Mooneyham noted, several North Carolina municipalities sell natural gas to their residents.
“This is another instance where national groups and their opponents come into North Carolina with model legislation and decided they want to fight, failing to take into consideration the individual situations of the state and its residents,” Mooneyham wrote in an email.
Some local governments have passed plans to increase renewable power sources and electrify publicly owned buildings over the coming years. The City of Durham, for instance, plans to shift natural gas uses in its facilities to electricity as it makes already planned renovations. Like similar plans around the state, Durham’s makes no mention of requiring the electrification of homes or businesses.
“Municipalities have been focused on their own carbon footprint, not trying to dictate what private property owners do and that’s a reasonable course of action,” Mooneyham said.
Arp did not respond to emailed requests for further comment.
Natural gas legislation
Over the past two years, 20 states have passed legislation preventing bans on natural gas, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. An additional four states, including North Carolina, have introduced but not yet passed similar legislation.
An NPR report linked the legislative effort to the American Gas Association, a trade group that lobbies for gas utilities. In a March 2020 presentation, AGA said that members should expect more policies geared toward electrification and that the response would likely be more legislation like the bill introduced in North Carolina.
Piedmont Natural Gas, a Duke Energy subsidiary that has about 775,000 customers in North Carolina, is a member of the American Gas Association. When asked about the legislation, Bill Norton, a Duke Energy spokesman, didn’t take an explicit stance but did tout the use of natural gas.
“Natural gas is often the preferred option for home heating and cooking and commercial applications, and that can be provided to customers affordably and reliably,” Norton wrote in an email.
Nearly a million of North Carolina’s 4.05 million homes are heated with natural gas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is also frequently used to power stoves and ovens.
The NRDC has opposed the state-by-state legislation, arguing that it prevents local governments from taking steps that would lead to cleaner indoor air and save money. Irene Nielson, an NRDC city strategist, said that House Bill 220 only serves to slow a transition to cleaner electricity, even as legislation like North Carolina’s recently passed energy bill is poised to shift power generation toward renewable sources.
“What other industry enjoys such a buffer from competing in the marketplace? It’s pretty unimaginable to think that there should be a law to protect industry from any technological change having an effect on them,” Nielson said.
Natural gas is mostly made up of methane, a powerful but short-lived greenhouse gas that is receiving increased attention from climate scientists. Curbing the use of natural gas, some say, could be the quickest route to short-term greenhouse gas reductions and help keep global warming under targets set in 2015’s Paris Accords.
Drew Shindell, a Duke University professor of earth science, led a United Nations report published earlier this year that found methane can be as much as 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide. During a recent webinar, Shindell explained that curbing methane emissions would have a major impact in the fight against climate change because the gas lasts in the atmosphere for a much shorter time than carbon dioxide.
“If we put the brakes on methane emissions, since it doesn’t last in the atmosphere so long and it’s a very powerful greenhouse gas, we can actually start putting the brakes on damages from climate (change),” Shindell said.
Public records provision
In addition to preempting the natural gas ban, House Bill 220 also includes language that would exempt a slew of records from the public’s review.
Some of the information newly exempted from public records law would include “detailed plans, patterns or practices” of state prisons or law enforcement’s response to gang activity. Design or vulnerability information about infrastructure like electric facilities, water treatment and water outfalls would also be exempted.
Brooks Rainey Pearson, a Southern Environmental Law Center legislative counsel, said one of her colleagues likened the public records provision to someone trying to protect something in a safe by locking up the entire bank.
“It was written so broadly that it would keep us from getting GIS information, for example, to see how a project might impact the citizens who live around it and that’s something that is critical,” Rainey Pearson said.
The same public records exemptions were included in House Bill 911, but that language was tweaked in committee to somewhat limit its reach. That bill, and the revamped public records wording, has stalled in the Senate Rules Committee since August.
House Bill 220 brings back the original wording.
“The version that is in House Bill 220 right now, we’re very uncomfortable with.,” Rainey Pearson said. “The version that is in House Bill 911, we don’t love but we’re OK with.”
This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.