NASHVILLE – A House subcommittee has killed an attempt to impose state regulations on wind energy developments while approving a renewed effort to have the Tennessee take over regulation of coal mining from the federal government.
The actions came during a meeting of the House Agriculture Subcommittee with far more debate on the wind energy regulation bill, an effort inspired mostly by opposition to plans by Apex Energy Solutions to spend $130 million erecting at least 20 electricity-generating turbines on a Cumberland County mountain.
The project has been opposed by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, U.S. Rep. Diane Black and more than 2,000 persons signing a petition. The Cumberland County Commission last year rejected two proposals opposing the project, but adopted a resolution urging the Legislature to establish state oversight regulations.
As introduced, HB1021 by Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, only called for a study of other states’ wind energy regulations. But when he brought the measure before the subcommittee on Wednesday, Sexton presented an amendment that went beyond that to actually impose and implement state regulations on such facilities, already subject to federal regulations.
In legislative committees, a sponsor-proposed amendment is typically adopted promptly on a voice vote and without discussion. In this case, however, Sexton’s amendment the opposite occurred – his amendment was promptly rejected on voice vote and with very little discussion.
Lengthy debate then ensued on whether even the original bill, calling only for a study, should be approved. The result was a stalemate and further consideration on whether the matter should be studied was postponed for a week.
Approval of the bill in a subcommittee would allow Sexton to try again in other committees – or on the House floor – to win approval of his amendment to actually impose state regulations. It could also be amended in the Senate, where sponsor Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, has scheduled a committee vote next week when the matter will once again be before the House panel.
Harry Snyder, project coordinator for Apex in Cumberland County, told the panel that Sexton’s amendment would “change our business model” and effectively kill the planned erection of 656-foot tall turbines as well as a smaller but similar project the company is developing near Kenton in Gibson County. He said the company has already spent $2.5 million on the Cumberland County project that would be lost if the proposal for state regulation was enacted.
He was somewhat ambivalent on the idea of simply having a study, acknowledging in response to questions that passage of Sexton’s original version would have no immediate impact on company plans.
“Tennessee is one of four states that does not regulate this industry in the slightest,” Sexton said, adding that TVA doesn’t need the electricity that would be generated and describing Apex as “an out-of-state company that would be selling power out of state” with little benefit to Tennesseans.
“As Sen. Alexander says, if you took the (federal) subsidies away this industry it would not be able to survive on its own,” said Sexton.
Snyder said the wind turbines would still be viable without tax credits “but the returns would certainly be lower.”
Legislator critics of Sexton’s proposal contended that imposition of new state regulations would violate the property rights of landowners who have already contracted with Apex for installation of wind turbines. And Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, openly urged Snyder to consider building wind turbines in Weakley County, where he lives.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Curtis Halford, R-Dyer, at one point made a motion to declare that Sexton’s proposal would have no impact on Gibson County, where he lives. He also voiced concern about telling landowners they “can’t use their property in a manner of their choosing.”
The subcommittee adjourned without taking a vote on Sexton’s original version or on a motion by Holt to send the measure to “summer study,” officially killing it for the year. That means both will on the table for the panel’s next meeting, scheduled to be the last of the 2017 session.
“Sorry we had the confusion, but that’s what happens when you don’t get it worked out before you come to the committee,” said the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, as he gaveled the meeting to a close.
The coal mining legislation (HB571), sponsored by Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, has been the subject of months of negotiation between those in the mining industry, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation leaders, and officials of the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM).
The federal agency has overseen coal mining in Tennessee since 1984, when then-Gov. Lamar Alexander said a “bureaucratic nightmare” had been created because of federal inspectors “second-guessing” state officials while the state had control, or “primacy,” in enforcement.
As with Sexton on the wind energy regulation legislation, Powers had originally filed a placeholder “caption bill” that called only for a study of other states’ coal regulation. But his 67-page amendment, proposing the “Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee,” and the resulting rewritten measure were both promptly approved without debates.
Powers did give a brief description of the measure, declaring it a “state’s rights issue” that would make issuance of coal mining permits faster without any negative impacts on the environment. With OSM overseeing the permit process, he said it can take up to four years for a permit to be issued while Kentucky, which now oversees its own coal mining operations, can issue a permit in “seven or eight months.”
He said state primacy could crease up to 2,500 new coal-mining jobs in “one of the most economically depressed areas of the state.”
Similar legislation has been proposed for the past two years, but failed with some critics citing a projected cost of more than $2 million to state government from the switch to state oversight from federal oversight – though there was also criticism from environmental groups.
Under the new version, Powers said about half the cost of state regulation would be covered by federal funding available to states overseeing their own programs and the rest will be covered by a system of fees charged to miners.
“We’re really looking forward to getting the coal mining industry going again in Tennessee,” he said.
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