After Lawrence sets renewable energy goals, Kansas lawmakers pass bill that prohibits cities from limiting natural gas

photo by: AP File Photo

A row of 260-foot-tall wind turbines churn out power at the Smoky Hills wind farm near Lincoln, Kan. Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In direct conflict with Lawrence’s goals for renewable energy, state lawmakers have passed a bill backed by the natural gas industry that prohibits cities from making any rules or requirements that would limit the use of natural gas or propane.

The Kansas Gas Service sponsored the bill, and private gas companies such as Black Hills Energy have also expressed support for the bill, saying that the bill is “preserving energy choice,” as the Journal-World previously reported. Natural gas is a nonrenewable energy source that contributes to the greenhouse gas effect, and the bill, named the “Energy Choice Act,” was at least in part a response to Lawrence’s efforts to move toward more renewable energy sources and combat climate change.

City Commissioner Lisa Larsen, a retired environmental geologist, has voiced opposition to bills like the gas bill and a proposal to limit wind turbines. She said that state lawmakers who supported these bills were not only discounting the economic benefit that high-paying green energy jobs can bring to the state, but also refusing to deal with climate change and its effects.

“The path that I’m seeing Kansas take is really shortsighted and morally wrong,” Larsen said. “And if we continue along this path, there is no doubt in my mind that we are going to be on the wrong side of history.”

Larsen also said the bill concerns her because she sees it is another attempt by the Kansas Legislature to usurp the home rule law that gives municipalities the authority to govern the way their residents want. Last March, Lawrence joined other communities across the nation in setting specific goals for energy use by passing an ordinance with the stated goal of powering the entire city with all renewable energy by 2035. The Energy Choice Act, or Senate Bill 24, was introduced in January with the backing of natural gas companies, and Lawrence’s ordinance was specifically singled out in testimony in support of the bill from those in the gas industry.

The bill itself is less than a page, and it states primarily that: “A municipality shall not impose any ordinance, resolution, code, rule, provision, standard, permit, plan or any other binding action that prohibits, discriminates against, restricts, limits, impairs, or has the effect thereof, an end use customer’s use of a utility service.”

Both the City of Lawrence and Douglas County have submitted testimony against the bill. Jasmin Moore, the sustainability director for the city and county, said the language of the bill is very broad about what actions would be prohibited, and that many things might “have the effect of” limiting natural gas use. She said that includes efforts toward energy efficiency, improving building codes, and encouraging energy conservation.

“There’s still a lot left open to interpretation, so it’s not really clear at this point what would be impacted by the language that’s included,” Moore said.

Apart from environmental concerns, Moore said such efforts would also have the effect of limiting energy use and consequently reducing costs for customers.

In that way, she said the bill could ultimately be a barrier to more affordable monthly utility bills, and the city would hope that reducing the energy cost burden that many in the community are experiencing would also be a value for policymakers. Moore said if the bill were signed into law, it might be more difficult for the city to reach its goal of 100% renewable energy sources as it relates to natural gas, but that the city would continue to prioritize clean and renewable energy.

Sen. Mike Thompson, the chair of the Kansas Senate Committee on Utilities, said in an email to the Journal-World that he felt the city opposed the bill for “ideological reasons.” He said that the true aim of the bill was simply to ensure that natural gas and propane were still available as energy choices for everyone across Kansas, which he said represents an affordable choice for many.

“There are many citizens who use those sources to heat their homes, cook, run generators, and even dry clothing, because it is generally an inexpensive way to accomplish these ends,” Thompson said. “It makes no sense to force those people, many of whom are on fixed incomes, to replace their appliances, in some cases at a huge expense, just because a municipality decides to arbitrarily go in a different direction.”

Thompson added that restaurants in particular would be negatively impacted by the decision, and if cities want to lead by example they still have the option to not use gas or propane in their own buildings.

Larsen said there are misconceptions and misrepresentations about the city’s ordinance.

While she said the city would diligently work toward the stated renewable energy goals, she also noted that the ordinance stated only that the city would “strive to achieve” the use of 100% clean, renewable energy for all energy sectors by 2035. She said she hoped that backers of the bill, instead of feeling threatened by competition, would instead work with the city to help achieve its goals. She noted that Evergy had been moving toward using more renewable sources of energy, and she hoped others would join the city in its efforts to support renewable energy and address climate change.

“I would really like to see other energy companies jump on board,” Larsen said.

The Kansas House approved the bill on Wednesday, with some amendments, and the Senate concurred with those amendments on Thursday, according to the Kansas Legislature’s website. The office of Gov. Laura Kelly did not immediately respond to an inquiry from the Journal-World regarding what action the governor planned to take. If the governor were to veto the bill, the Legislature could override it with a 2/3 vote.


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