Credit: S&P Global

By Tom Baxter

If there’s a bill before this year’s General Assembly which has the shape of things to come, it’s the measure which prohibits local governments from restricting utility hookups to buildings “based upon the type or source of energy or fuel to be delivered,” which means natural gas.

In 2019, the city of Berkeley, Calif., changed its building code to say it wouldn’t give permits to new construction with natural gas hookups, as part of its effort to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. The idea has spread to states on both coasts, and spawned a flurry of legislation in states in between.

No cities in Georgia have enacted such a ban, but several have adopted goals for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. They oppose the bill as an unnecessary intrusion into the business of local governments. Utilities and other business interests have lined up on the other side.

No matter what happens to the bill this year, a combination of political and market forces virtually dictates that this issue will be revisited, possibly many times. It has every element of a bill that mellows with age: the nostalgic references to gas stove cooking, the major bucks it brings from gas producers and utilities, the clear division between the states that are doing it and the states that are alarmed about it.

But natural gas hookups are only a small part of what’s coming, as the nation struggles to adjust a 20th, or in some cases 19th Century infrastructure to the demands of a 21st Century world.

The sleeper story of the year so far was the announcement by General Motors last month that by 2035 it will sell only electric vehicles. That’s less time, for a basis of comparison, than I’ve been driving my Honda. The internal combustion engine, the quintessential American machine, is headed in the direction of the landline phone and the transistor radio.

Starting with the evaporation of the gas tax, the coming of electric vehicles signals a dramatic shift in the way state governments do business. With the coming of 5G, these vehicles will also be able to communicate with each other, and increasingly, drive themselves.

That’s eventually going to call for a new kind of road, somehow combining asphalt with aspects of the information highway. States are going to have to figure out how much of that they’re willing to pay, as well as how much they’ll be forced to pay for.

When they build new schools in the future, governments will have to consider the problems, such as providing adequate ventilation, which have arisen over the past year during the pandemic. That, in addition to designing schools which provide the best protection from an armed intruder.

In these and many other ways, governments seem likely to be increasingly preoccupied with the many ways it regulates how we build our buildings, navigate our highways and communicate by phone. Some of these issues will involve the inevitable results of neglect and time: aging pipes, potholed streets, that sort of thing. Some will be made necessary by emerging technologies.

The most difficult are going to be those that are the result in one way or another to climate change, and that is a widening circle of worries. As is the case with the natural gas hook-up bill, these issues are sure to increase the already heightened tension between state and local governments. That’s another theme we’ll likely see reflected in legislation over the coming years.

Natural gas bills like the one in Georgia have already been passed in four states and have been introduced in three others. In some ways, these bills recall the 2012 North Carolina law which banned coastal communities from regulating development based on long-term forecasts of rising sea levels.

In that case, the state’s authority was pitted against the force of the Atlantic Ocean. In the case of the natural gas bills, the states face a new wind from Washington, as the Biden administration a tougher line on bringing greenhouse gas emissions under control, and a construction industry, staggered by the pandemic and anxious to stay out of the line of fire.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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  1. Commercial kitchens will not be feasible if natural gas is not available . This might be different in the future as technology changes. The irony is that in Berkeley CA where this started, it has the effect of prohibiting new Chinese restaurants as there is no non-gas way to cook with a wok. The Bay area has one of the largest of concentrations of Chinese residents as a percentage of the population.

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