Gov. Wolf vetoes GOP effort to block local climate legislation

The bill would have prevented local towns from banning natural gas, something climate activists say will be key to addressing global warming.

Pennsylvania State Capitol building

Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed Republican-led legislation this week that would have tied the hands of municipalities seeking to electrify buildings.

In a letter to lawmakers, Wolf said the bill would have hampered local efforts to combat climate change, because the bill “stands in the way of clean energy incentives and initiatives.” He also wrote that the legislation was unnecessary, because the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has regulatory authority over utilities.

The bill, spearheaded by gas industry lobbyists and sponsored by state Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), would have blocked municipalities from limiting fossil fuel use and promoting electrification in building codes. It was part of a nationwide push to preempt local natural gas bans after Berkely, Ca. passed a prohibition of new natural gas hookups in some buildings in 2019.

An investigation by WHYY News showed executives from the city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works engaged in crafting the measure — potentially undermining the city’s own climate goals.

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While PGW said its actions did not constitute lobbying, it said it supported the intent of the legislation, citing higher costs for alternatives and the inability of a large majority of its ratepayers to make the switch away from natural gas.

“PGW remains committed to serving Philadelphia’s diverse energy needs — safely, reliably and environmentally responsible while also affordable,” said PGW spokesman Richard Barnes in response to a question about Wolf’s veto.

The bill, known as a “preemption” bill because it preempted actions by local governments, passed the Senate and House with Republican support. In a statement, Sen. Gene Yaw called Wolf’s veto “baffling,” saying the legislation was meant to protect ratepayers from rising energy costs.

“Whether the governor likes it or not, our energy policies over the last two decades, especially surrounding natural gas development, have resulted in lower electricity costs for our residents,” read the statement. “So, it should be their choice, not his, as to whether they heat their homes with a gas furnace or an electric heat pump.”

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But opponents of the legislation praised the veto, saying gas is not necessarily cheaper than the alternatives and the bill would have had a chilling effect on climate initiatives that used incentives as well as bans.

“As we’ve moved from gas stoves to induction cooktops, from gas dryers and furnaces to electrical [dryers and furnaces], the writing is on the wall — we are moving away from gas,” said Clean Air Council attorney Logan Welde.

“The legislation went beyond gas preemption and it sent a message to municipalities that whatever efforts they took to reduce gas usage would possibly lead to litigation. A lot of small municipalities don’t have a legal team like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it would have stopped the conversation in its tracks.”

PennEnvironment’s David Masur said with the recent Supreme Court ruling limiting the federal government’s ability to address climate change, it’s even more important now for local governments to have options.

“Local and state officials need as many tools in their toolbox as possible to tackle climate change and implement the policy solutions that are at our fingertips,” Masur said.

No towns or cities in Pennsylvania have proposed banning new natural gas hook-ups. In December, New York City passed a law that would phase out natural gas in new construction.

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