Several Democratic senators questioned whether state officials would get involved and honor community requests to prevent pipelines from being built through backyards, as was the recent case in Memphis. In 2021, residents and community activists protested efforts to build the Byhalia pipeline slated to carry natural gas through a historic Black neighborhood by use of eminent domain.
Byhalia officials had received the two permits needed for the project from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but faced legal action from property owners refusing to sell land needed by the pipeline. Valero Energy and Plains All American, the companies behind the project, eventually canceled it. Both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission have since passed regulations against pipeline infrastructure.
Although Yager said his bill was not aimed at Memphis communities, Memphis and Shelby County would be affected by limited pipeline regulations.
Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis, noted that unregulated fossil fuel infrastructure could devastate Shelby County’s Memphis Sand Aquifer, on which the county depends on for drinking water.
Despite Yager’s assurances that federal laws protected drinking water, Lamar responded that only 20% of Tennessee’s waterways are protected, leaving 80% unprotected. Also, federal regulations do not currently protect aquifers, said Lamar, “which most of our county is made up of.”
Democratic Senators Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, also questioned the logistics of the bill, with Campbell asking if local officials would be able to restrict methane gas storage tanks from schools and hospitals, and Akbari asking if landowners could protect themselves from land grabs through eminent domain.
“Think about your backyards. Do you want a pipeline through your backyards? No matter how deeply it’s buried, it’s still going to be in your backyard,” said Akbari.
“I know we do a lot of preemption up here, but this a very serious scenario where it could potentially have very devastating effects in someone’s neighborhood,” she added.
Yager admitted that he sponsored the bill on behalf of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee Fuel and Convenience Store Association, but said that counties micromanaging fossil fuel operations posed a threat to Tennessee’s economy, and that developers would have already gone through “exhaustive federal regulatory control” before building commenced, allowing plenty of time for public comment.
“These lines go across many several counties in this state, and at its worst case, if you allow micromanaging by each local level, sadly some of which who may have political agendas, you would end up with patchworks of regulations that would only serve to hurt our Tennessee economy,” he said.
The bill’s House counterpart has yet to pass a House committee, but early reports show more amendments are planned due to concerns from environmentalists and local government officials.
Apart from wellhead protections, the word “impair” has been removed from some sections, while allowing for “reasonable police powers of a political subdivision to regulate” infrastructure within communities in order to reduce potential threats to residents.
“We think that cities and counties, people concerned with protecting public safety and protecting the environment, have made this bill better, but it’s still unnecessary to preempt local government,” said Scott Banbury, spokesperson for the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club.
If the House committee passes the amendments next week, the Senate bill would need to be amended.