Florida lawmakers advance bills to halt local clean energy efforts

Environmentalists say the measures would put the state’s energy future into the hands of the Florida Legislature, whose members — often from both parties — have been heavily influenced by the state’s utility monopolies.
The Capitol in Tallahassee is seen following Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.
The Capitol in Tallahassee is seen following Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published March 9, 2021|Updated March 10, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s GOP-led Legislature took the first steps Tuesday to reach its goal of putting a stop to efforts by cities and counties to strengthen options for energy alternatives in the age of climate change.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee gave preliminary approval to SB 856 that would preempt prevent local governments from blocking or restricting construction of “energy infrastructure” related to such things as production and distribution of electricity, natural gas and petroleum products. The committee also approved SB 1128 that would prevent local governments from banning natural gas as an energy source in new construction.

House sponsor of the infrastructure preemption bill, Rep. Tom Fabricio, a Miramar Republican, said the idea originated after Tampa City Councilman Joe Citro proposed a non-binding resolution to set a goal for the city to reach 100 percent renewable energy citywide by 2030. He withdrew his proposal and it has not returned, but the industries have used the threat of it to generate support for the legislation.

If passed, environmentalists say the measures would put the state’s energy future into the hands of the Florida Legislature, whose members — often from both parties — have been heavily influenced by the state’s utility monopolies through political contributions and other favors.

The measure, by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, and another bill that attempts to limit local rules relating to solar installations, SB 1008, have alarmed Florida’s clean energy advocates and environmentalists.

“In a shocking power grab, Florida’s monopoly utilities and their allies in the state legislature are trying to strip local authority over all aspects of how we power our lives,’' said Aliki Moncrief, executive director, Florida Conservation Voters.

“This is an appallingly bad bill,’' said David Cullen, lobbyist for the Sierra Club of Florida. “It would destroy everything.” He urged the Senate committee to reject the bill, but they supported it along party lines.

“Transition means there has to be change,’' Cullen said. “All this bill does is to prevent localities from helping to make that change to moving to clean renewable energy.”

In favor of the bill were lobbyists for the Florida Petroleum Association, the Florida Natural Gas Association, the Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Home Builders Association and the National Utility Contractors Association of Florida but none of them spoke at the meetings.

If passed, the reach of the measure is enormous say officials of the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties who testified against the bills.

SB 856 invalidates local comprehensive plans that restrict land use related to fossil fuel and renewable energy. It would prevent local governments from prohibiting natural gas fracking, nullify their solar permitting ordinances, weaken Southeast Florida’s climate compact, end renewable energy grant programs and eliminate county authority over pipelines along roadways.

What’s more, it peels back existing protections and clean-energy goals. That includes 11 local governments that have signed agreements to electrify their vehicle fleets to achieve goals of net zero dependence on fossil fuels.

‘Unfathomable consequences’

“This legislation as written now will have unfathomable consequences for local policy and local safeguards that are decades in the making and will cause widespread confusion about countless other local ordinances zoning codes resolutions contracts,” said Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters.

He cited the Senate staff analysis which notes that the bill “may impair local governments vested rights or contractual obligations, or ability to satisfy a contractual obligation.” And he warned “this bill will become a lightning rod for litigation.”

Hutson said the “genesis” of the bill was based on the fact that “there’s really no state guidelines or guidances on what clean energy should look like.”

But, rather than establish guidelines, the measure targets local efforts at filling the gap.

But Rebecca O’Hara, deputy general counsel for the Florida League of Cities, said that cities are “not advocating for any ban on fossil fuels or any ban on types of energy sources or bans on gas stations” but the bill “goes much further than that” by halting local control over any type of energy infrastructure.

Hutson amended the bill and portrayed it as an attempt to “preempt local governments from prohibiting gas stations” in communities, unless they are already in existing comprehensive plans.

But opponents said the measure would also restrict private electric vehicle charging stations, potential competitors to the state’s monopoly utilities.

“Under this bill the state could cite substations and transmission lines next to an elementary school, or gas station inside a residential neighborhood and local residents would just have no say and have to live with it,’' Webber said.

Natural gas use targeted

The Senate committee also approved SB 1128 which would prevent local governments from discouraging the use of natural gas in their building codes. It is also fiercely opposed by cities and counties and clean energy advocates.

Florida is one of the states that continues to rely exclusively on monopoly utilities to provide energy. Customers cannot switch utilities if they don’t like the fact that their local power provider chooses to generate electricity using a fuel source which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. So as cities, counties and states across the country seek to slash emissions, they’re increasingly turning to policies that ban natural gas in new construction.

Miami, which stands to lose billions if sea levels keep rising, recently announced that it would need to block natural gas hookups in new construction soon if it hopes to reach its goal of going carbon neutral by 2050.

When Austin and San Antonio tried to enact the same policies, gas lobbyists watered them down, and lawmakers in the statehouse introduced two new bills blocking local governments from banning natural gas.

Besides Texas and Florida, 10 other states have enacted or proposed legislation that preempts local governments from controlling natural gas. An investigation by the Guardian, the Texas Observer and the San Antonio Report found that the American Gas Association is coordinating and lobbying for these bills.

Armani Arellano, a Florida State University student and an intern at Environment Florida said that climate change is a “the defining issue for future generations” urged the committee to reject the measure.

“We really want to see is actually on this and the way for action isn’t to prohibit the use of new building codes and adhere to the old ones,” he said, but to allow local governments to enact change.

The preemption bills are among a lengthy list of proposals introduced this session that are designed to use the legislative power of the GOP majority in Tallahassee to block more progressive policies coming from local officials, often in Democratic-dominated city and county commissions.

Industry wrote language

In many cases, according to records obtained by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, the draft legislation has been written by an industry that wants the change and can find it easier to lobby the 160 members of the state Legislature than the more than 412 cities and 67 counties.

For example, SB 856 and a similar bill (HB 839) by Rep. Tom Fabricio, R-Miramar, has been written by the lawyers for the utility companies and follows model legislation advanced by the America Natural Gas Association.

The Florida Natural Gas Association is supporting the measure because it wants to strip away the ability of municipalities from encouraging alternatives to natural gas by imposing ordinances that limit greenhouse gas emissions from buildings or encourage the shift to heat pumps over gas-powered water heaters.

Hutson defended the fact that lawyers for the industry drafted his initial bill as “part of the process” and said it was just the first draft. He said the intent was not to prohibit any new energy sources, “we’re just prohibiting the elimination of current energy sources,’' he said referring to fossil fuels.

“You can’t completely wipe out any energy that’s already on the grid,’' he said.

The measure, however, continues to halt progress made by local communities while it offers no state replacement.

“I applaud them trying to get to clean energy but we don’t need to apply to a ZIP code or county line. Energy has no boundaries,’' Hutson said. “Let’s get this to the state level and hit the pause button and figure out what clean energy looks like.”

Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, asked Hutson to consider grandfathering the existing communities that have clean energy goals. Hutson responded that. he was reluctant, saying he didn’t think that would satisfy his goal of trying to supersede efforts to discourage fossil fuels.

“I don’t know if we’re going to be fully off gas fuel by 2030,’' he said. “Maybe it’s realistic by 2050.”

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