Arizona Capitol

Cities Hate It, But Ducey Signs Bill Banning Local Bans on Natural Gas Anyway

A Phoenix sunset with a film of haze.
A Phoenix sunset with a film of haze. Alan Levine via Flickr
Governor Doug Ducey has signed into law a bill that will prevent cities and towns in Arizona from banning natural gas, despite clear opposition from major cities.

Spokesperson Patrick Ptak said that Ducey signed House Bill 2686, which was fast-tracked through the State Legislature this month with companion bills in the House and Senate, on Friday.

On its face, the new pre-emption law prevents municipalities from discriminating against different utilities in issuing building permits and making zoning decisions.

They cannot "deny a permit application based on the utility provider proposed,” the bill reads, and they cannot pass codes or ordinances that could “have the effect of restricting a person’s or entity’s ability to use the services of a utility provider.”

But the new law is expected to benefit, in particular, the gas industry.

The bill was pushed by Southwest Gas, a major gas company in Arizona, where more than half of its some 2 million customers live. It is backed by others in the industry and its business-minded allies. Last year, its sponsors in the Legislature received their largest donations from Southwest Gas.

Southwest Gas has said that the legislation would ensure “homeowners, builders, or business owners have access to balanced energy solutions that are efficient, affordable, and clean.”

The legislation was proposed just as the gas industry nationwide began looking to undercut efforts by a growing number of cities to curb or end the use of natural gas, which leaks methane and produces carbon dioxide, in an attempt to mitigate climate change at a local level.

Now, with the help of a new law preserving its customer base and protecting its profits, the gas industry doesn't have to worry about such bans happening here in Arizona.

Before it became law, major cities in Arizona registered opposition to the bill, for other reasons.

Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix has criticized the legislation as undermining local authority.

“City government is the branch of government closest to the people it serves,” she said in a statement earlier this month. “We think pre-emption of local control in any form sets a bad precedent.”

Regina Romero, the mayor of Tucson, voiced similar concerns.

"I will always be against state legislation that needlessly micromanages cities and tells us what we can and cannot do. Tucsonans know what is best for our community, not the State Legislature,” she said through a spokesperson after the bill landed on Ducey's desk.

She also pointed out that in Arizona, the “problem” that the law seeks to solve doesn’t actually exist, because no cities or towns in Arizona have banned natural gas.

Meanwhile, polling suggests that Arizonans themselves dislike what Ducey has just made law.

In a survey conducted in mid-February, Chispa, a local Latino civic engagement and environmental justice organization, asked 600 likely voters who spanned the political spectrum, “Who should have the final say about whether natural gas is allowed in new buildings?”

Overwhelmingly, regardless of party affiliation, respondents said local communities should have the final say, not the state, according to the survey's results, which Chispa shared with Phoenix New Times.

Just 15 percent said the state should have that authority, while 74 percent of those surveyed said communities should, with most of them saying they felt “strongly” that that decision should stay local. (Eleven percent of respondents said they did not know, felt the question was not applicable, or refused to answer the question.)

Support for local control was strongest among self-identified Republicans (79 percent) but still staunch among independents (72 percent) and Democrats (70 percent).

People in rural and northern Arizona felt even more strongly, with 86 percent of rural respondents favoring local control and just 7 percent supporting state authority. Southern Arizonans surveyed, including those in Tucson, agreed, with 80 percent favoring local authority and 10 percent state.

In Maricopa County, 68 percent of respondents supported local decision-making, 18 percent state.

Overall, 42 percent of those surveyed said they considered themselves Democrats, and 47 percent considered themselves Republicans.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which supported the bill that is now law, has cited polling showing that 82 percent of respondents in a statewide survey of natural gas customers last year were "strongly opposed to natural gas being eliminated from their homes." In a press release, it added that "74 percent of respondents were largely unaware of policies to remove the option of natural gas as an in-home energy source."

The chamber did not mention that Arizona currently has no policies to remove natural gas from people's homes, and that in cities in other states that have looked to ban natural gas, those requirements have almost solely applied only to new construction — not to existing homes.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.