A bill currently in the Tennessee state house, and passed by the senate, shows a significant overreach of government power despite the GOP’s claims of more freedom.
The GOP legislation, SB 2077, would give the state the ability to override local laws and governments that want to block fossil-fuel projects in their communities. So, if a city or county doesn’t want an oil pipeline going through their neighborhood’s backyard, they would be helpless to stop it.
In the United States, a higher power has the ability to invalidate the laws of a lower power through the concept of preemption. If the local law conflicts with state law, the state wins out.
This bill would make local communities near defenseless in the face of giant fossil-fuel companies. It would strip city and county governments of their autonomy and ability to prevent potentially harmful effects on the environment and their own citizens.
Last year, a grass-roots environmental group in Memphis famously prevented the construction of a pipeline through the city’s Southwest neighborhoods to transport crude oil. The neighborhood, Boxtown, is predominantly Black and would have faced the loss of property and bared the risks of environmental pollution.
A land agent for the pipeline had even remarked before the project was defeated that the neighborhood would be “the point of least resistance,” shamefully revealing his attitude towards its residents.
From several environmentally harmful projects in Black communities over the last several decades to the current attempted takeover of the town of Mason’s finances, Tennessee has a reputation of exploiting minorities for financial gain.
In fact, Tennessee has time and again proven to be a national example for environmental racism, spurring Black candidates such as Marquita Bradshaw to run predominantly on a platform of environmental justice in the state.
The pipeline bill by the GOP was created to get rid of this local resistance, predominantly led by Black activists in West Tennessee, and give corporate lobbyists the victory they want to continue their expansion of the damaging fossil-fuels industry.
As noted by Tennessean writer Margaret Renkl in the New York Times, “Republicans are supposed to be the party of small government, the party of local control. But as preemptive legislation in red states demonstrates again and again, republicans are about freedom and small government only when they’re not the ones in control of the government.”
This analysis sheds light on the exploitative nature of the current Republican Party in the state legislature. The GOP prides itself on platforms of greater freedoms and liberty, yet harshly cracks down when Black activists don’t want a potential pollution nightmare in their backyards.
Despite constant preaching of federal overreach with masks and vaccines, Tennessee Republicans have no qualms about sweeping their party’s ideals under the rug in order to further their agendas of profiting from fossil-fuels, restricting education and banning abortions. They have created this leviathan to control these matters that they disagree with, trampling over the same small governments they assert they protect.
Outside of state government overreach, the bill is a prime case of going backwards instead of looking ahead.
The potential for harm against the environment and pollution that affects residents is increased when the fossil-fuel industry can place projects with relative free reign. Now without the protection of city councils or county commissions, any community, especially those of color, is at risk of finding their water or soil polluted by oil companies with abysmal safety records.
Instead of investing into a clean green industry sector that would be independent of the rise and fall of gas prices, the Tennessee legislature is continuing the state’s reliance on harmful, climate-changing fossil fuels. Ignoring the problem of climate change because it isn’t too bad now only makes the emergency worse.
Being an agricultural state, Tennessee knows what it means by “you reap what you sow.” If we continue to sow environmentally-harmful policies in our energy sector, then we are going to reap one heck of a harvest. We must start vastly improving our green-power infrastructure now instead of trampling over the rights of minorities in the name of profit.
The state legislature needs to reexamine its use of big government and wield its power to benefit Tennessee, not lead it to ruin.
Walker Kinsler is a freshman at UT this year studying political science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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