DUNEDIN — Vice Mayor Jeff Gow credits much of his city’s environmental progress to its ability to act when the state and federal governments don’t.
Since 2018, Dunedin has begun to transition its municipal vehicle fleet from fossil fuel to electric power and instituted a solar rebate program for residents. The program runs out of money every year due to demand.
But the city’s pledge — to hit 100 percent clean, renewable energy for municipal operations by 2035 and by 2050 community-wide — is being threatened by a series of bills in the Legislature that would undermine local governments’ authority to craft energy policies.
On Thursday, Gow and advocates from Food & Water Action and the Tampa Bay Climate Alliance rallied in downtown’s Pioneer Park. They called on House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, from his home district to oppose scheduling the bills for committee hearings next week.
”Rep. Sprowls’ own constituents are the very people who passed 100 percent clean energy resolutions, and we’re also the same people who will be hit the hardest by climate change’s impacts. That is why he has made a commitment to address sea level rise and flooding,” said Food and Water Action senior organizer Brooke Errett. “But sea level rise and flooding will get much worse if we don’t address them at their cause: greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.”
Sprowls spokesperson Jenna Sarkissian did not respond to a request for comment.
Natural gas and utility industry lawyers have heavily influenced the legislation, including crafting the first draft of SB 856 and HB 839, which would have preempted local governments from banning fracking and creating solar energy ordinances.
But after several committee hearings, SB 856 sponsor Sen. Travis Hurston, R-St. Augustine, narrowed the bill’s language to now mainly prohibit the replacement of gas stations with greener energy options, which would still impede cities’ efforts to phase out fossil fuels.
At the rally Thursday, Phil Compton, senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club, raised special concern about SB 1128 and HB 919, which would prevent local governments from banning natural gas as an energy source in new construction. Another measure, SB 1008 and HB 761 would limit local rules relating to solar installations.
“This is Tallahassee saying, ‘we’re going to tell you where you can put an (electric vehicle) charging station, we’re going to tell you whether or not you can put solar panels on a roof and we’re going to dictate every aspect of energy policy for you,’” Compton said in an interview.
Compton said gas and oil interests are increasing pressure on Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country, since the election of President Joe Biden and his environmental agenda has closed the door on federal intervention.
“They can’t go to Congress and they can’t go to the White House anymore,” Compton said. “What they can do is they can go to the state legislature here and a number of states across the nation where one party has a 2 to 1 majority, where they can get anything done and they can write bills that take away the authority of Vice Mayor Gow, the Dunedin City Commission and all of their colleagues across the state.”
The group of about 15 stood on Pioneer Park’s pavilion and spoke about the need for local control, as coastal cities like Dunedin are already fighting to mitigate impacts of climate change. They chanted “Clean energy now” and held signs that read: “Dunedin took action while the state slept” as passersbys strolled through downtown before sunset.
Gow noted how Dunedin’s plans for a new $23 million City Hall, which the Commission advanced on Tuesday by approving a developer to build it, include solar panels and charging stations and also showers to encourage employees to bicycle or walk to work. He fears that further preemption from Tallahassee will only strangle cities’ abilities to make environmentally conscious policies like those.
“We need to ensure Florida and the great assets within our state are here and enjoyable for many generations to come,” Gow said. “That assurance is through committing to 100 percent clean renewable energy and transportation, land conservation and a focus on quality of life.”