In April, Florida passed a bill that restricted cities and towns from banning fossil fuel use, a defensive piece of legislation similar to bills being pushed around the country by the natural gas industry. Now, the bill is doing exactly what its authors and industry interests intended: stopping cities from setting meaningful climate action in place.
New reporting from the Miami Herald demonstrates how sensitive the natural gas industry is to the slightest chance that it would be forced to clean up its act or face extinction. The Florida bill passed in April was originally drafted just a short period of time after fossil-fuel-sympathetic legislators and industry interests heard of a nonbinding resolution being proposed in Tampa earlier this year that would have prevented new fossil fuel facilities, including pipelines and natural gas compressors, from being built in the city. The statewide bill was also initially drafted, as the Herald has previously reported, with help from utility industry lawyers.
“It was almost spontaneous, that some of the fossil fuel industry could take offense at wanting to save our city a few dollars and keep our energy clean and protect our environment,” Tampa City Council Member Joe Citro, who was the original author of the nonbinding resolution, told the Herald.
Citro ended up withdrawing his resolution at the request of environmental advocates who were scared of pissing off politicians at the statehouse. That didn’t work, though; the pro-utilities and fossil fuel legislation ultimately passed and was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The law is slightly watered down from the one initially drafted by utility interests, which would have retroactively undone any fossil fuel bans set in place by cities and towns before its passage. But it’s still regressive and has made it harder for municipalities to make meaningful reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, major Florida cities are passing resolutions that are less effective than they might have been before the law was put in place. Citro has re-introduced his resolution suggesting the city power itself on renewables by 2035, with the portions about restricting fossil fuel use taken out. In Miami, plans to make the city carbon-neutral—which originally included provisions mandating that businesses and residents restrict natural gas use—can now only use voluntary actions. (In addition to the new statewide law making changes to the text, a local natural gas supplier also lobbied hard against some of the original provisions in the initial draft.) As a result, the original goal to have 100% of new buildings be net zero by 2035 is now just 5% of new buildings. Buildings will also be allowed to continue using natural gas as long as they improve their energy efficiency, which is a loophole waiting to be exploited.
Reconfiguring how cities and states use natural gas, especially absent of any federal action, is absolutely crucial to charting the U.S.’s future without fossil fuels. The first citywide mandate restricting natural gas use was passed in Berkeley in 2019, and has quickly caught on in dozens of cities around the country. New York just set a national example last week when it passed legislation to ban natural gas hookups in all new buildings; the measure, one analysis estimates, could cut 2.1 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2040.
In contrast, Florida is demonstrating how to do the exact opposite. It’s also acting as a canary in the coal mine for an industry that has been panicking and mustering a full-force effort against campaigns to put it out of business. The Florida bill is one of 19 state-level laws defending fossil fuels against local interests that seek to restrict their use; another five states are considering similar legislation. Records obtained by various news organizations show that the American Gas Association, despite claiming publicly that it’s not coordinating these efforts, has been organizing utilities and state gas groups behind the scenes to fight for pro-gas legislation. The industry knows that the state and city battlegrounds could be key to its survival, even if it spells doom for the climate. And, if Florida is any indication, right now, it’s winning.