This week, the Tennessee House will take its first look at a bill that has the power to keep fossil fuels flowing in the state no matter the protests of local officials and their constituents. HB 2246 is the House counterpart to SB 2077, which allows the state to approve oil and gas projects and override county and municipal governments if they choose to veto such infrastructure. The bill, which will be introduced to the House Commerce Committee on Tuesday, spans just one page, but its summary is damning: “As introduced, directs the department to conduct a study of the current infrastructure of utilities operating in this state, including pipelines or transmission lines used to produce or distribute a source of energy such as gas or oil, to determine what improvements to the infrastructure are needed to attract development and investment to this state.”
It’s as if Tennessee, a state with a utility that already doubled down on fossil fuels recently, is only doubling down on oil and gas even further. And the claim that this bill will “attract development and investment” is a frequently-deployed tactic of oil and gas-loving lawmakers sympathetic to the industry because of the, ahem, “investments” those companies have made in politicians. Looking at the 23 lawmakers who voted to approve the bill on the Tennessee Senate floor, every single person who said “aye” has benefitted from campaign contributions made by the oil and gas sector. SB 2077 sponsor Ken Yager, a Republican who’s been in office since 2018, has pocketed nearly $20,000 from the likes of Marathon Petroleum, the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association, and the family that founded Pilot Flying J. Those donations span Yager’s entire political career.
Co-sponsor John Stevens received over the course of his political career $2,500 from Atmos Energy, $1,000 from Cox Oil Co’s Michael E. Cox, $500 from the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association, and $250 from Piedmont Natural Gas. He’s been in office since 2012. As for the House version of the bill, sponsor Kevin Vaughan netted just three total campaign donations from the oil and gas industry: $1,500 from Valero, $1,000 from Atmos Energy, and $500 from Piedmont Natural Gas. Vaughan, a fellow Republican, has been in office since 2017. Co-sponsor Ron Gant, a fellow Republican representative who’s been in office since 2016, has similarly only minimally benefitted from the oil and gas industry. His campaign has previously received $1,000 from Atmos Energy and $1,000 from Piedmont Natural Gas. Those donations were broken up into $500 chunks and made in 2017, 2018, and 2021.
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It will be interesting to see how much more these lawmakers receive from oil and gas companies as this legislation progresses through the Tennessee General Assembly and as politicians prepare for the midterms. If anything, Vaughan and Gant are presently outliers when it comes to fossil fuel fundraising. State senators who approved of SB 2077 have absolutely cleaned up thanks to polluters lining their pockets, with donations cumulatively in the tens of thousands from members of the family who founded Pilot Flying J and even local energy providers like AGL Resources Chattanooga Gas. Perhaps the most telling of those donations came from William E. Haslam, a former Tennessee governor, billionaire, and third son of Pilot Flying J founder Jim Haslam II, who’s donated to 13 of the 23 senators who approved SB 2077.
It’s worth noting that, on top of their own self-interest in fossil fuels, the legislation is itself a reaction to constituents’ protests over additional oil pipelines. The New York Times draws a through-line from environmental activists and concerned citizens defeating the Byhalia Pipeline that would’ve gone through Memphis and this bill, quoting Vaughan as saying that “the Memphis situation alerted those folks in this industry to what could happen if planned projects … can be interrupted by municipalities somewhere along the way.” And god help Republicans if doing the right thing and not trashing the planet were to happen.