Five Georgia Environmental Bills to Watch in 2015

Georgia legislature warms up to solar panels, gets protective of coastal marshes, withdraws support for electric cars, and sacrifices LEED certifications in favor of jobs.

April 2, 2015 marked final adjournment of the 2015 Georgia legislative session. Upon adjournment, the legislature sends five key environmental bills to Governor Deal for signing.

(1) HB 57 – Solar Power Free-Market Financing Act of 2015 (“Solar Freedom Bill”)

The Solar Freedom Bill allows property owners to finance the addition of solar panels to their properties as they would finance cars or homes. The legislation eases hurdles associated with purchasing solar panels which generally requires arduous up-front costs, historically deterring property owners. Solar developers supporting the bill have complained that Georgia’s ambiguity on the issue made it difficult and risky to sell in the state. Across the aisle, power companies voiced concern that legislation would allow for rival retail utilities to enter the market. They were pacified, however, with inclusion of certain protections in the bill allowing them to maintain a monopoly system, controlling the size of panels, limiting liability related to equipment use, and allowing them to control safety requirements. See, Ray Henry, Georgia likely to permit third-party lending for solar panels, Athens Banner-Herald, http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2015-03-21/georgia-likely-permit-third-party-lending-solar-panels (Mar. 22, 2015).

(2) SB 101 – “Salt-Water Marsh Bill”

SB 101 was crafted to insulate marshlands lining Georgia’s coastline. The marshes provide food and shelter for Georgia bird, fish, and wildlife species. The bill preserves Georgia’s marshes by protecting them with 25-foot buffers in which unregulated development is prohibited. Additionally, the bill allows projects approved by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to be decided on a case-by-case basis based on local variances. Advocates for the bill, however, say it does not go far enough. Former director of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, Carol Couch, points out that the bill allows for variances inconsistent with those allowed for rivers and streams, making it less protective. See, Carol Couch, Carol Couch: Former EPD chief: Fix marsh-buffer bill, Savannah Morning News, http://savannahnow.com/column/2015-03-26/carol-couch-former-epd-chief-fix-marsh-buffer-bill (Mar. 26, 2015).

(3) HB 170 – Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (“Transportation Bill”)

HB 170 seeks to raise money for improvements to Georgia’s transportation system including the construction of new highway projects, maintenance of existing infrastructure, bridge repair and safety enhancements, with priority given to the state’s most highly congested highway areas. If signed, the bill would allow local municipalities and counties to collect a 1% sales tax on gasoline sales. In addition, the bill (i) creates a “highway user impact fee” imposing a new $50-$100 tag fee on trucks and busses; (ii) creates a $5/per night tax on hotel and motel bookings; and (iii) imposes a $300/yearly fee on alternative fuel commercial vehicles. Additionally, marking the end of the legislature’s honeymoon with electric vehicles, the new legislation imposes a $200/yearly fee on users of privately owned electric vehicles and eliminates the $5,000 state tax credit allowed on low-emission vehicles and zero emission vehicles (including electric vehicle purchases). See, HB 170, Transportation Funding Act of 2015, Georgia Municipal Association, http://www.gmanet.com/Legislative-Session/Bill/HB170 (Apr. 14, 2015).

(4) HB 255 – “Green Certification Bill”

The “Wood Wars” wages on in Georgia. Under HB 255 no state contract for construction, addition, repair or renovation work will be enforced unless it requires contractors and subcontractors to exclusively use Georgia forest products. In addition, when a state project requires green building standards, the contractor applying for such project can only use green building standards that give certification credits equally to Georgia forest products grown, manufactured, and certified under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the American Tree Farm System, the Forest Stewardship Council, or other similar certifying organizations. Arguably, however, the bill creates more bubbles than bath where the Governor already decreed such requirements in a 2012 executive order. See, Stuart Kaplow, Georgia’s Legislation Banning LEED for State Buildings is Much Ado About Nothing, Green Building Law Update, http://www.greenbuildinglawupdate.com/2015/03/articles/leed-1/georgias-legislation-banning-leed-for-state-buildings-is-much-ado-about-nothing/ (Mar. 2, 2015). Supporters of the bill argue that LEED certification unfairly reduces the amount of Georgia produced wood used during construction of new projects.  Consequently, motivation behind the bill is said to be job protection and creation. See, Georgia Passes Legislation Banning LEED for State Buildings, http://www.forconstructionpros.com/article/12058080/georgia-passes-legislation-banning-leed-for-state-buildings (Mar. 25, 2015).

(5) HB 397 – Soil and Water Commission Overhaul

Finally, as indicated in our prior post, HB 397 focuses on changes to the State Soil and Water Conservation Commission.  The bill curbs the Soil and Water Commission’s independence and streamlines its regulations by bringing it within the umbrella and oversight of the Department of Agriculture.

In total, the 2015 legislative session saw moderate environmental impact. We now await final signing of these bills by the Governor.

For advice and assistance with obtaining variances around marsh lands or other environmental/property related issues please contact Scott Hitch at shitch@burr.com.

White House Announces Expedited Schedule for Renewable Energy Projects

On August 7, the White House announced an expedited approval schedule for seven solar and wind projects on federal and tribal lands in Arizona, California, Nevada and Wyoming totaling 5,000 megawatts (MW) of energy-producing capacity, an amount sufficient to power roughly 1.5 million homes.

Three of the proposals would be first to come on line. The Quartzsite, McCoy and Desert Harvest solar energy facilities represent a combined 1,000 MW of capacity, and are on schedule for approval this year. Another project announced is the 3,000 MW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy project in Carbon County, Wyoming, which would be the largest in North America.

If approved on schedule, the seven projects would add to the 7,200 MW of renewable energy the Obama administration already has permitted on federal lands and would help exceed a goal set by the 2005 Energy Policy Act to permit 10,000 MW of renewable energy by 2015.

For more information on environmental law topics, please contact one of the Burr & Forman team members for assistance. We are happy to answer any questions or concerns you may have.