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The Tennessee legislature blocked climate action this year — again. And other environmental bills you may have missed.

A crane is seen near downtown Nashville on August 6, 2022, during the city's sixth-hottest summer on record.
Caroline Eggers
A crane is seen near downtown Nashville on August 6, 2022, during the city's sixth-hottest summer on record.

While some states are confronting climate change head on, Tennessee has been blocking actions that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Tennessee General Assembly passed several bills this year protecting fossil fuel interests and developers, continuing a recent pattern of preemption legislation.

Here’s a look at this year’s most impactful environmental legislation.

Fossil fuel companies get more power

Fossil fuel companies scored a few wins through the Tennessee legislature this year.

Natural gas is now legally defined as “clean energy,” despite the fossil fuel being responsible for the worst climate pollution sites on Earth. Natural gas is also called methane gas to highlight its main, planet-warming ingredient. It starts with drilling, usually fracking, and is transported by pipelines, which are known to leak large amounts of methane. Methane has a global warming potential 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in a 20-year timeframe.

Dave Anderson, of the Energy and Policy Institute, told WPLN News that the bill seems to have the intent of preempting local governments from enacting effective clean electricity standards or net-zero goals.

This legislation was sponsored by Rep. Clark Boyd, R-Lebanon, who also sponsored a new law, HB 483/SB 367, that preempts cities from banning gas stoves.

The state legislature also increased the penalty for protesting oil and gas pipeline projects. Lawmakers first passed legislation in 2019 to criminalize any activity that “destroys, injures, interrupts, or interferes with critical infrastructure,” and the new law simply raises the felony charge from a Class E to Class C felony, if the damages equate to at least $1,000.

More than a dozen states have passed similar laws, with some lawmakers arguing that the legislation would help thwart right-wing, neo-Nazi plots against the power grid, HuffPost reported.

But these laws were created in reaction to Indigenous protests of fossil fuel projects, a report found.

Tennessee preempts better housing codes 

Building energy codes determine how safe and clean developers are required to make homes.

Last week, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill, HB 799/SB 1377, that preempts cities from enacting better codes than what Nashville currently has in place.

“We’re setting a maximum standard,” said Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, the bill’s sponsor. “It gives the builders flexibility.”

The goal of updated building energy codes is to reduce electricity consumption, use less natural gas and reduce the lifetime energy costs for people. Buildings are the fourth-largest source of climate pollution in the U.S. and can represent significant health disparities related to indoor air pollution — natural gas appliances for heating and cooking contain volatile organic chemicals linked to cancer.

Republicans pass ‘scenic’ river protections

Republican lawmakers passed two bills this year designed to protect segments of Tennessee waterways.

The state now has protections for part of the North Chickamauga Creek in Hamilton County, not far from the head of the Cumberland Trail. A portion of this Tennessee River tributary is now considered a Class I natural river area, which the state defines as “rivers or sections of rivers that are free flowing, unpolluted and with shorelines and scenic vistas essentially primitive and generally inaccessible except by trail.”

The state also classified a portion of the Duck River in Maury County as scenic with the Class II designation, which says rivers are unpolluted with “shorelines and scenic vistas partially or predominately used for agricultural and other recreational activities.”

This second bill, which Gov. Bill Lee signed into law on Friday, could affect one company’s plan to construct a large landfill on a Superfund site in Maury County. The new designation prevents any landfills from being permitted within two miles of the river.

Weather infrastructure funding falls short 

In January, the state introduced first-of-its-kind legislation to fund a mesonet, a statewide network of stations that would have provided real-time weather data in every county.

This infrastructure provides forecasters with more detail than radar systems during severe weather. During a heavy rainstorm, for example, forecasters can tell just how quickly rain is falling, how likely flooding is and what type of warning to issue — which would have helped the town of Waverly during the historic, 2021 flood.

“You can guess with radar, but it’s just a guess,” said Andrew Joyner, Tennessee’s state climatologist.

Stations can help the state save money across a variety of sectors, including agriculture, energy and transportation, since weather affects virtually everything. Joyner suggested that the state could easily recover the costs of the mesonet and then save more money.

“It’s such a good return on investment for the state,” he said.

But the legislation, HB 599/SB 713, did not pass due to a lack of funding — stalling in a finance committee during the final week of the legislature.

The legislation would have also required the state to map landslides, which are a growing threat in Nashville due to climate change and changes to the ground caused by development.

Wetlands focus of three bills

Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, and Sen. Brent Taylor, R-Memphis, tried to pass three different bills targeting wetland protections, like one that would prevent the state from designating an area as a wetland unless it is classified federally. The bill is likely a reaction to federal developments on the “Waters of the United States” rule, which has been temporarily blocked in Tennessee, but it did not pass.

The lawmakers did pass legislation that will reduce requirements for aquatic resource alteration permits, which allow developers to physically alter water features — such as draining a wetland.

Caroline Eggers covers environmental issues with a focus on equity for WPLN News through Report for America, a national service program that supports journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Before joining the station, she spent several years covering water quality issues, biodiversity, climate change and Mammoth Cave National Park for newsrooms in the South. Her reporting on homelessness and a runoff-related “fish kill” for the Bowling Green Daily News earned her 2020 Kentucky Press Association awards in the general news and extended coverage categories, respectively. Beyond deadlines, she is frequently dancing, playing piano and photographing wildlife and her poodle, Princess. She graduated from Emory University with majors in journalism and creative writing.