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General Assembly to consider protecting natural gas access

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Patrick Larsen
VPM News
Jess Sims, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, speaks about environmental-related legislation at the Virginia Conservation Network's Conservation Lobby Day.

The preemptive proposal likely wouldn’t impact any current codes or zoning rules in Virginia.

Maia Zasler, a senior at the private Collegiate School in Richmond and co-president of nonprofit GreenTeenzRVA, was at the Virginia State Capitol Tuesday to talk with lawmakers about bills that seek to protect or expand the use of natural gas and its main component, methane. She was attending Conservation Lobby Day, hosted by the Virginia Conservation Network.

“Methane is linked to exacerbated childhood asthma, and my whole family has asthma,” Zasler told VPM News, “So, I’d like clean air for them.”

She asked lawmakers to oppose what proponents call the Virginia Energy Diversity Act, a measure carried by Del. Israel O’Quinn (R–Washington County) and Sen. Joe Morrissey (D–Richmond) — though Morrissey pulled his version of the bill from consideration this week. O’Quinn’s version, HB 1783, was approved by the House along party lines.

HB 1783 would require Virginians have the ability to connect their homes to a natural gas or propane line. In other words, it would outlaw new local codes or zoning requirements that would bar a building, resident or utility from establishing a natural gas or propane connection.

O’Quinn argued in a January meeting of the House Commerce and Energy Committee that the commonwealth needs to keep investing in natural gas infrastructure in order to protect electric grid reliability and the state’s economy.

“Natural gas, in addition to being a raw power provider, is also used in a lot of manufacturing components,” O’Quinn said.

Brett Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, said natural gas is essential for Virginia industry as both a power source and a raw material for a range of widely used products like fertilizer.

“I wanna emphasize — if you are committed to having a vibrant manufacturing community and supply chain, we absolutely must have natural gas,” Vassey said. “We cannot electrify only.”

Environmentalists disputed whether the bill would benefit manufacturers, saying connection bans passed in localities across the country — like New York City and Berkeley, California —have targeted residential development. Higgins said she’s not aware of any efforts to establish connection bans in Virginia. But Vassey told VPM News that the bill is an essential preemptive measure.

Victoria Higgins, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, argued that electrification of buildings will result in a net efficiency increase compared to gas.

She also argued the bill would hamper localities’ ability to address gas-related health and environmental concerns.

“The legislation would prohibit localities from basically using the tools at their disposal to reduce indoor methane combustion, which would include electrifying buildings,” Higgins told VPM News.

She said there are some federal incentives for electrification projects, like rebates for heat pumps. CCAN and other advocacy groups are monitoring how those are used by individuals and localities to determine how the state can start moving its residential sector to zero-carbon systems.

Higgins also said HB 1783 is part of a nationwide push from the natural gas industry, supported by the American Gas Association and American Legislative Exchange Council, to preempt local governments.

As for Zasler, she hopes her contribution to the discussion was heard — but she’ll keep engaging with elected officials regardless.

“I’ve always thought it's important that youth have a voice, especially when it comes to climate action, because this affects us,” Zasler said. “For lawmakers, the investment for us is now.”

Lawmakers are also considering measures to encourage the use of coal bed methane — which naturally leaks from active and retired coal mines — as a source of energy and heating fuel. The measure was previously intended to define CBM as a renewable source, but a compromise with environmentalists saw that language removed. If passed, the measure would require the Department of Energy to evaluate policy options that would further CBM’s use in the commonwealth and provide a report to lawmakers and Gov. Glenn Youngkin by November.

O’Quinn’s bill is slated to be heard by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. Previous efforts to pass similar legislation have failed in Virginia.

This story is powered by the 2023 People's Agenda.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.