NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Senate passed legislation that would largely remove the ability of local governments to halt 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 Thursday moves action in the GOP-supermajority legislature to the House of Representatives, where the bill requires further committee action. Proponents believe the proposal will protect critical energy resources.
The bill follows a victory by environmentalists in July when the Byhalia Connection canceled plans to build an oil pipeline through southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi. It would have been built over an aquifer that supplies drinking water to 1 million people.
Justin J. Pearson, president of the Memphis Community Against Pollution, helped prosecute this pipeline and opposes the new law. He said the legislation helps oil and petroleum companies “exploit communities by depriving them of the ability to protect their own water, homes, schools and churches.”
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“The legislation contradicts every conservative principle of the right to local control, gives self-determination and protects people’s property and lands,” he said.
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Ken Yager, a Republican from Kingston, said the pipelines cross multiple cities and counties and are heavily regulated at the federal level, requiring public comment. Yager said the current legal situation could result in a patchwork of regulations designed only to “harm our Tennessee economy.”
He also said his bill has some limitations. In particular, it does not absolve local authority over wind and solar projects. It does not prohibit local officials from taking action when there is a conflict with a state administered or approved program, including groundwater and drinking water conservation.
“We’ve seen the experience nationally and even in Tennessee where local governments, through their ordinance or resolution, try to micromanage some of the operation of that infrastructure,” Yager said.
Yager said the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee Fuel & Convenience Store Association asked him to fill the bill.
Senator Raumesh Akbari, leader of the Memphis Democratic caucus, said the law reverses local decision-making, a key issue for communities.
“This is a very serious scenario where it could potentially have a devastating impact on someone’s neighborhood,” Akbari said.
The Byhalia Link would have connected two major US oil pipelines while passing through wetlands and under poor, mostly black neighborhoods in south Memphis.
Pipeline advocates sought significant domain, long seized upon by governments to claim private property for public-use projects.
Last April, Byhalia Connection announced it would stay legal action after the Memphis City Council began considering an ordinance that would have made it harder for the company to build the pipeline.
Activists held community rallies, including one attended by former Vice President Al Gore. Lawyers sued in federal court, challenging the US Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the pipeline as part of a statewide permit. The Shelby County Commission refused to sell the pipeline builder two properties that are on the proposed route.
Byhalia Connection attributed the project’s cancellation to “lower US oil production as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A company involved in the pipeline, Plains All American, said in a statement that it has no plans to proceed with the Byhalia Connection.
Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee.
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