Following a national trend of state backlash to renewable energy projects, state lawmakers are crafting more roadblocks to defend fossil fuels.
With the Wisconsin Legislature now in session, Republican lawmakers have introduced a variety of bills that target clean energy. Following a national frenzy over natural gas and gas stoves earlier this year, one of these proposals would prevent municipalities from banning specific energy sources.
The legislation, which has been introduced in both the Assembly and the State Senate, reacts to a national trend of cities and towns shifting away from a reliance on natural gas.
At the beginning of this year, right-wing politicians and commentators stoked wildly exaggerated fears over a ban on natural gas stoves after a member of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission hinted at the possibility of regulatory changes for the appliances, calling them a “hidden hazard.”
Now, the agency is reviewing potential restrictions on gas stoves, and other federal agencies are calling for the appliances to meet higher efficiency standards. Regulators are also considering requirements that newly sold gas stoves come with warning labels. The national debate made its way to Wisconsin, reigniting legislation that would make it harder for cities to move away from natural gas.
The Senate version of the bill was authored by Senator Julian Bradley (R-Franklin), who took to Twitter amidst the gas stove culture war earlier this year, saying he planned to author “legislation to prevent local government overreach.” Bradley did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
“This bill prohibits a city, village, town, or county from placing any restriction on the connection or reconnection of a utility service based on the type or source of energy to be provided,” a Legislative Reference Bureau analysis of the Senate bill reads. “The bill also prohibits a city, village, town, or county from discriminating against a public utility or a liquified petroleum gas retailer.”
This legislation is not new. Last year, Representative Daniel Knodl (R-Germantown) authored similar legislation to “Ban the Bans” over natural gas. Knodl is again the author of this year’s Assembly bill.
This bill is not grounded in reality: No municipalities in Wisconsin have banned the use of a specific energy source, including natural gas, to power their communities.
Wisconsin Republicans’ current legislation is similar to bans of energy-source bans that have popped up across the country, from Iowa to New Hampshire. On the other hand, at least 80 U.S. cities, including Berkeley, California, and New York City, have banned new natural gas hookups to prevent increased greenhouse gas emissions and to address public health concerns.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel harvested by drilling and fracking. The gas is transported via pipelines to states across the country to heat homes and power businesses. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that Wisconsin gets its natural gas from the same places a lot of other states do—Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, and Canada. Natural gas was once billed as a green alternative to coal plants, but the gas’ primary ingredient is methane. Fossil fuels, agriculture, and other sources of methane are responsible for roughly 30 percent of global warming.
Over the course of several decades, researchers have linked gas-powered appliances to adverse health effects. A recent study, which fueled the gas-stove debate at the beginning of the year, found that gas stoves tend to release carcinogenic matter such as benzene, as well as nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter. The study, published by the Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, found that 13 percent of childhood asthma cases could be linked to gas stoves.
Given Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ push for investments in clean energy in recent years, he will likely veto legislation that stops cities and towns from choosing or excluding energy sources. In his recently announced budget proposal, which faces an uphill battle against the legislature’s Republican majority, Evers included an annual $5 million for clean energy job training in addition to another yearly $1 million for conservation and environmental career paths.
The state’s clean energy plan aims to have all electricity consumed within the state to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2050. Currently, Wisconsin’s largest single source of energy is natural gas. Following national trends, Wisconsin’s coal consumption has decreased in recent years. But natural gas has taken its place. The state has seen an increase of over 20 percent, according to the EIA, in natural gas use since 2011.
This proposal that would preempt local communities’ ability to ban specific energy sources is just one of a handful of bills that have recently circulated in the state Capitol to obstruct renewable energy initiatives.
Senator André Jacque (R-DePere) has been circulating a bill that would allow local governments to impose stricter regulations on the placement of wind turbines. Citing a wind turbine collapse in Dodge County last year and a fight against a large wind farm outside of Glenmore back in 2016, Jacque’s proposal would allow communities to enact zoning enforcement that exceeds the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s current guidelines on siting for new wind projects. Jacque did not return a request for comment.
Additionally, a bill in both the Assembly and Senate would require proposals for large solar projects to go through longer public-comment periods than they currently do and would increase permitting and notice requirements for large projects.
Jennifer Giegerich is the government affairs director of Wisconsin Conservation Voters, a nonprofit voting advocacy group focused on the environment and climate change. She says the new round of legislation trickling out of the Capitol is all the same, despite the technical differences among individual bills.
“It’s an attempt by our legislature to really continue to put its weight behind dirty fossil fuels,” Giegerich says. “They’re making a value statement about protecting out-of-state energy and not investing in clean, sustainable, local energy.”
Giegerich says that Wisconsin’s neighbors to the east and west, Michigan and Minnesota, have taken aggressive steps to invest in clean energy and are setting ambitious goals for their clean energy plans. Both states have Democratic-controlled state governments.
In the Wisconsin state Capitol though, the difference comes down to a Republican majority, entrenched in both chambers through the years of gerrymandering. But clean energy is not always a partisan issue, even in the Midwest. Iowa is a Republican-controlled state that is also a heavyweight when it comes to renewable energy from wind turbines. In fact, the state’s Republican Governor, Kim Reynolds, and its senior Republican Senator, Chuck Grassley, have both voiced support for the state’s wind-energy industry.
“Our legislature is very behind the times and very ideological about energy in a way that our other Midwestern states are not,” Giegerich says.