Local climate action is working (just ask the fossil fuel industry)

Published on July 19, 2023

Cities are taking local climate action to phase out fossil fuels and protect the health of their communities

Residents gather in Whatcom County, WA to take to take local climate action by passing laws to block new fossil fuel facilities

The fossil fuel industry is on its heels. That’s not an opinion — that’s a fact. Institutions are divesting at a record pace, with $40 trillion having already left fossil fuel company coffers. Public support is dropping. And perhaps most concerning to executives who would see the world burn (literally) before supporting a change in the status quo, is that more governments from the local level all the way up to the national stage are taking steps to legislate climate action that will spur an equitable transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

At the local level, one of the most effective and popular ways this is being done is by requiring new buildings to be all-electric, effectively preventing new methane gas hook ups. After all, despite duplicitous branding from the fossil fuel industry, there isn’t much “natural” about methane gas — its use is disastrous for the climate and a serious health risk responsible for 1 in 8 cases of childhood asthma in the United States.

No one expected the fossil fuel industry to sit on its hands while cities got wise to its shady business model to sacrifice the health of our communities and planet, but its pushback on this issue has been particularly vicious.

From paying PR firms to astro-turf controversy via NextDoor, to spending millions of dollars in advertising against local initiatives, to literally threatening to bus in hundreds of protesters with no social distancing in place during a pandemic to delay a vote (yes, really), there hasn’t a been a line the fossil fuel industry wasn’t willing to cross to stop these building electrification policies.

And yet despite all of this, the industry is losing — badly. More than 100 cities in California and beyond are taking local climate action and protecting the health of their residents by prohibiting new gas hookups. Even states are getting in on the action too, with New York State passing a first-in-the-nation building electrification policy during its spring 2023 legislative session.

But — as the fossil fuel industry has successfully done to virtually every real attempt to rein in its power and move toward the clean energy future we so desperately need — this new local climate action strategy is at risk of being hamstrung.

The fossil fuel industry has decided that if it can’t win the game, it’s time to flip the board. Instead of engaging at the local level and defending its dangerous industry there (because, spoiler alert, it can’t) they’re taking local communities out of the equation altogether. Instead, the industry is using its deep pockets to lobby conservative state legislatures to pass preemption laws, ensuring that communities can’t take local action to protect their residents or the climate from the harmful effects of fossil fuels.

In an attempt to stop this “existential threat” that will lead to “death by one thousand cuts,” at least 20 states have capitulated to the gas industry and passed some form of preemption legislation to ban building electrification policies, and several others are considering it

It won’t be enough.

Not only are cities in conservative states are finding ways around these bans in creative ways by choosing to incentivize building electrification instead of mandating it, but people taking local climate action aren’t stopping at phasing out methane gas. Cities and counties across the U.S. are passing all kinds of laws (increasingly known within the climate and environmental justice movement as SAFE policies) aimed at stopping the expansion of fossil fuels and ushering in a just transition to a clean energy economy in different and increasingly creative ways.

In Washington, Whatcom County updated its land use and development regulations to make it all but impossible to construct new major fossil fuel infrastructure. New York City passed its version of a “Green New Deal” that will create thousands of jobs within the city by requiring large buildings to become increasingly more energy efficient and phase out methane gas. And not to be outshone by Berkeley in California, Petaluma became the first city in the U.S. to prohibit the construction of new gas stations and Culver City initiated a phase out of oil extraction within city limits.

As someone who has spent the better part of a decade watching national and subnational governments around the world fall down on the job in addressing the climate crisis and environmental racism, this wave of meaningful local action to limit and phase out the substances that are cooking our planet and poisoning whole communities is a much needed breath of fresh air (pun intended).

The fossil fuel industry is one of (if not the) most powerful in the world, but even it can’t stand against a truly grassroots movement. While it tries to stymie the spread of methane gas bans with preemption laws, local municipalities are already stopping the construction of new gas stations and refusing to approve new drilling permits. They’re creating all-electric bus fleets and restructuring power agreements to guarantee a 100% renewable energy grid.

And that’s just scratching the surface — as we’ve discovered with our research for SAFE Cities there are a lot of different and unique ways for governments to take local climate action by limiting and phasing out fossil fuels in their communities while simultaneously creating family-wage jobs with green energy, climate mitigation, and public health efforts.

It’s essential that local municipalities use their varied, powerful, and oft-underestimated abilities to stop the expansion of fossil fuels, and it’s what every single climate and environmental justice advocate should be clamoring for their local elected officials and staff to do.

Lives — both at the local level and, as the climate emergency worsens, abroad — are quite literally at stake. And no amount of meticulously crafted propaganda from the fossil fuel industry can change that.

Nathan Taft is the Digital and Communications lead for Stand.earth’s SAFE Cities initiative. SAFE Cities is a growing movement of neighbors, local groups, and elected officials phasing out fossil fuels and fast-tracking clean energy solutions to ensure a just transition.