Valero Memphis Refinery billowing smoke. Valero was one of two companies proposing the Byhalia Pipeline, a 40-mile oil conduit that would have gone through historic Black neighborhoods in Memphis. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)
On March 2, a seemingly innocuous bill in the Tennessee General Assembly proposed a study on energy infrastructure, but an amendment to remove local government’s ability to regulate fossil fuel infrastructure threw up red flags with legislators, local government officials and environmental groups.
The bill was advancing quickly, and before a Senate committee meeting scheduled on March 15 , those critical of the bill met with Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, to discuss possible amendments.
Almost immediately, Vaughan addressed the crowd that the conversation before them was not about debating fossil fuels but “the best way to have one community not be able to derail projects outside its jurisdictional boundaries,” he said.
Despite those intentions, Vaughan’s bill, HB2246 and its Senate companion, SB2077, attracted controversy across the state, especially from Memphis and Shelby County officials who spent more than a year making attempts to protect communities from unwanted fossil fuel infrastructure.
“Two weeks ago I was a Marxist and a socialist in my email and now I’m a genocidal shill for the oil company. I’m somewhere in the middle,” said Vaughan.
Although SB2077/HB2246 would affect local governments statewide, Memphis residents and officials allege the bill directly targets Memphians’ fervent fight against the now-defunct Byhalia Pipeline, a 49-mile natural gas pipeline that was proposed to run through a historically Black Memphis neighborhood.
Memphis communities protested against Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation’s efforts to use eminent domain to acquire private property needed to finish building the pipeline, and the movement received national attention as a fight against environmental racism, after primarily Black and impoverished communities were labeled by pipeline officials as the “path of least resistance.”
Two weeks ago I was a Marxist and a socialist in my emails and now I'm a genocidal shill for the oil company. I'm somewhere in the middle.
– Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, over blowback to his bill.
During the March 15 meeting, Justin J. Pearson, a founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline–now Memphis Community Against Pollution–read a prepared statement and said the legislation had been crafted behind closed doors and sprung on unsuspecting Tennesseans. And due to the ambiguity of the bill, Pearson added that local governments have sought guidance from him and others over what the bill intended to do.
Pearson concluded that he, environmental advocates and local government officials were concerned about the consequences of unhindered business interests and that everyone had a right to be concerned.
“I don’t think that they’re going to care more than our county mayors, I don’t think they’re going to care more than our county commissioners,” he said. “We should not have to sacrifice our independence and our personal freedoms for out-of-state oil companies’ ability to trample over local communities.”
Several others also spoke out against the bill, including George Nolan from the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sarah Houston from Protect Our Aquifer and Scott Banbury from the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club, all arguing that there is already little state oversight to protect ground water and drinking water.
Lessons were learned from the Byhalia pipeline
Houston and others had known about the proposed Byhalia pipeline since 2019 and met with Valero officials to discuss any environmental issues. Houston noted that the proposed maps showed that the pipeline would be directly above the Davis Wellfield, from which 20 million gallons of water was pumped daily for residents. Valero officials promised to monitor the issue closely, but otherwise made no efforts to change the pipeline’s path.
And because of regulatory gaps, Valero and Plains All American were not legally obligated to consider drinking water or potential impacts upon local communities. By 2021, they had acquired the two permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Department of Conservation that they needed to move ahead with the project.
The companies eventually withdrew their project, but community leaders and local officials had learned that drinking-water regulations depended almost entirely on local authorities.
Because companies were not obligated to protect Tennesseans, “out-of-state oil companies are always going to choose the shortest, least expensive route, regardless of local concerns,” said Nolan.
Vaughan argued against the notion that this law was created to “allow companies to torpedo through people,” but was an effort to strengthen Tennessee’s energy independence, and that protecting drinking water should not be the basis to remove all energy infrastructure.
“I’m concerned about the fact that I’m paying $5 for diesel…That impacts people negatively too,” said Vaughan, referring to Tennesseans that rely on a full tank of gas for their jobs.
But he acknowledged that the bill’s “aggressive language” leaves many questions unanswered as to how it would affect efforts to regulate gas retailers in sensitive areas or underground fuel storage.
He made an amendment allowing the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and local authorities to provide protections for wellheads leading to the aquifer.
On March 15, SB2077/HB2246 passed in a Senate committee and is scheduled for a vote in the House Commerce Committee on March 22. Bill SB2077 has yet to be scheduled for a vote by the full Senate but could appear on the calendar as soon as Thursday if passed in the House committee.
Despite the amendment, lawmakers, local officials and community leaders have called the bill dangerous and have urged their constituents to protest its passage.
“While they’re trying to make a reaction against the citizens of Memphis, they’ll end up hurting citizens across the state of Tennessee,” said Memphis Democratic Sen. London Lamar.
”Decisions about a pipeline in your city should be made by your city—not by a group, Capitol Hill politicians who have never set foot in your neighborhood,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, in a written statement. Akbari was the only committee member to vote against the bill.
Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, sponsor of the senate bill, said the bill is necessary to protect energy infrastructure in the state and that local regulation could disrupt fuel supplies and disrupt local economies, leading to unemployment and diminished revenue streams.
Communities would benefit from energy infrastructure by ensuring a supply of fuel to meet consumer demand, Yager said. As to concerns about environmental damage, he points to several state laws already regulating energy industries, including the Pipeline Safety Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which require permitting processes while allowing for public comment.
“It is important to listen to all opinions on any issue. Our office has participated in stakeholder meetings which included concerned Memphis citizens,” said Yager. “We also had testimony in (the) Commerce and Labor Committee from one of the community leaders active in the opposing side. Let me add that this is not a ‘Memphis bill,’ but a bill of statewide application.”
According to Vaughan, the bill will not prohibit general zoning authority of local governments or prohibit “reasonable energy and infrastructure siting requirements.”
While Shelby County’s wellhead protection ordinances will remain in place, other ordinances would be affected, including one providing a 1,500 foot setback for oil infrasture from most residential areas, an ordinance by the Memphis City Council preventing energy infrastructure from crossing city streets without a permit and Memphis’ moratorium on gas stations.
“We also do not want to restrict a local government’s ability to select energy sources that best serve its community’s needs,” said Vaughan, but noted that the current nationwide trend to ban fossil fuel infrastructure stood against Tennessee’s need for “reliable, and sustainable fuel.”
“We believe that the language included in our amendments, combined with local land use policies, are adequate measures to allow these critical infrastructure systems to be located within our communities. My concern is that without this, or similar legislation, Tennesseans will see a threat to the availability of valuable resources because of a patchwork of local government regulations,” he added.
Across the state, local government officials have made a stand against the bill.
And the Memphis City Council, which is still seeking to pass ordinances against fossil fuel infrastructure, will vote on Tuesday to oppose the legislation.
Memphis City Councilmember Dr. Jeff Warren expressed the same concerns as environmental advocates that the legislation could negatively affect local communities and noted that federal guidelines currently grant some protectections for drinkable water, and that the legislation could face legal issues.
“I’m hoping they will move this to summer study because local authorities will benefit from being able to protect schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and other community buildings that you don’t want pipelines to be close to,” he said, adding that summer study could prevent future litigation.
Lamar urged Tennessee citizens and local officials to speak out against the bill, and that despite the amendments, not enough is being done to protect citizens from contaminated drinking water.
“Clean drinking water, to me, is a fundamental right for all citizens,” said Lamar.
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