Utah lawmakers push to block cities from banning natural gas

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune tile photo) This file photo from March 12, 2020, shows an overview of Eureka. With a population of 690, the town will be the first in Utah to get natural gas service under a new law that allows Dominion Energy to extend natural gas lines to rural Utah communities that currently rely on propane.

Some California cities have enacted rules that prohibit new homes from connecting to natural gas, a fossil fuel whose emissions contribute to climate change.

That won’t happen in Utah under a bill that a legislative committee advanced Tuesday on a straight party-line vote.

“We should have customer choice when it comes to energy," bill sponsor Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, told the Public Utilities, Energy, and Technology Interim Committee. “As policymakers, we should allow for customer choice, whatever the market dictates, whatever that is. We shouldn’t prohibit customer choice.”

But Democratic committee members failed to see the point of the bill since no Utah city has proposed restricting utility customers' access to natural gas, although Handy contended “there are conversations.”

“I worry that when we start getting into this prohibition language, it really hamstrings municipalities from exploring any sort of innovative policy,” said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. “I just think that it’s a very heavy-handed approach for the state of Utah when we haven’t even seen any negative consequences.”

Titled “Utility Permitting Amendments,” the bill simply states “a municipality [or county] may not enact an ordinance, a resolution, or a policy that prohibits, or has the effect of prohibiting, the connection or reconnection of a utility service to a customer based upon the type or source of energy to be delivered to the customer.”

By a 12-4 vote, the committee advanced the measure for consideration in the upcoming legislative session.

In response to Kitchen’s concerns, Handy emphasized Utah’s energy policy stresses an “all of the above” strategy that embraces renewable sources, such as wind and solar, as well as traditional fossil fuels, such as natural gas and coal, which is extracted in rural Utah.

“In an era of energy transformation, consumers should have all options on the table and these options should be preserved,” Handy said. He claimed natural gas costs $1,700 less per year to heat and cool a Utah home than other fuel sources.

Making natural gas more widely available would help rural Utahns and make housing more affordable, proponents say.

Even though natural gas burns much more cleanly than coal and emits about half the carbon dioxides, cities in four “blue” states have passed ordinances prohibiting gas utility connections in new construction.

“I think it’s just a notion that kind of gets out there that … fossil fuels are evil,” Handy said. “It isn’t. It has its place. It’s made America what it is today. There are transitions going on and let the market dictate what those transitions are.”

Since February, Arizona, Tennessee, Louisiana and Oklahoma have enacted laws barring cities from banning gas and similar legislation has been introduced in Missouri, Minnesota, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia, according to an analysis compiled by S&P Global.

While winning kudos from rural Utah lawmakers, his argument failed to move a single Democrat on the committee.

“I don’t see what this is solving for the state of Utah at the moment other than trying to ride some political waves that you guys talked about from the coasts,” Kitchen said. “I’m not seeing how this helps Utah cities or residents.”