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Tennessee passes bill that protects oil and gas industry

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As cities around the country pursue their climate change goals, some states are passing legislation to protect the oil and gas industry. Tennessee's legislature just approved a bill that preempts 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 that bill after Memphis stopped a planned oil pipeline through mostly Black neighborhoods and above the city's drinking water. Among those opposing the project was former Vice President Al Gore.

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AL GORE: This pipeline project is a reckless, racist ripoff.

EGGERS: This was an unusual environmental justice victory 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 swiftly responded to it.

JUSTIN PEARSON: By stripping that power away and handed it to executives who don't care about Tennessee, who don't live here, and are only using our land for their own profit gains.

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

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

EGGERS: Focusing on economic arguments for developing fossil fuel infrastructure, he said...

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

EGGERS: But Vaughn skipped over some important details, like the impact of fossil fuels on the climate, environment and people. For example, the bill blocks cities from regulating or enforcing pipeline safety. Since gas pipelines on rare occasions can explode, neighbors often want them far away. While the bill was explicit in some areas, like excluding solar energy, it's vague in others. The bill never defines what would be considered a prohibition on fossil fuel siting or development. George Nolan, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says courts may have to interpret the text.

GEORGE NOLAN: There's some broad language in this bill that pipeline companies, energy companies could use to intimidate local governments from standing up for their communities.

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

SARAH HOUSTON: Though we do believe this is a bill from industry that they're trying to have replicated in multiple states in order to just route their infrastructure without any local opposition.

EGGERS: Energy legislation like this has been tested in Tennessee before. After Berkeley, Calif., became the first city to ban natural gas service in new buildings, Tennessee became one of the first states to pre-empt such an action. Now, at least 21 states have this type of law. For NPR News, I'm Caroline Eggers in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caroline Eggers