Cities are organizing against the fossil fuel industry — and winning

September 28, 2020

Elected leaders speak at NYC Climate Week 2020 about the local regulatory strategy to protect public health and fight climate change that is gaining momentum across the U.S. and Canada

As the U.S. federal government implodes, with little to no focus on fighting climate change or tackling the fossil fuel industry’s massive lobby, leaders at cities and counties across the U.S. and Canada are stepping up to take action to pass policies to protect public health and fill in the gaps where the federal government has failed. 

These local leaders are trailblazers in the new SAFE Cities movement, a campaign led by environmental organization to support the growing number of cities and counties across the U.S. and Canada who are using local regulatory power to stop the growth of the fossil fuel industry by preventing projects — before they’re even proposed. 

“Our nation is on fire. Climate disruption is happening now. And with the federal government refusing to act, it’s up to local governments like cities and counties to take responsibility: to provide a healthy planet to the next generation, to protect health and wellbeing of people today, and to provide a sustainable economy — especially for marginalized populations,” said Dave Upthegrove, a King County Councilmember in Washington state.

The idea behind the SAFE Cities movement — that communities can shift from fighting individual fossil fuel projects to preventing the growth of the fossil fuel industry altogether — is a strategy that more and more people are recognizing is one of the most effective ways to fight climate change in their neighborhoods.

From British Columbia to Maryland, four former and current city and county council members spoke on September 22, 2020 during a virtual panel at Climate Week NYC about their experiences of passing local regulatory policies to simultaneously protect public health, prevent the growth of the fossil fuel industry, and push forward a clean energy future.

Local regulatory trailblazers

Leaders in Berkeley, California; King County, Washington; Baltimore, Maryland; and Vancouver, British Columbia were some of the first local officials to lay the groundwork for the SAFE Cities movement, passing policies to ban fracked gas in new construction, prevent the shipping and storage of fossil fuels, and stop oil train facilities, among other policies.

In 2019, Berkeley, California became one of the first cities in the nation to ban fracked gas in new buildings — a move that many people viewed as controversial thanks to the industry’s “clean burning” PR spin. 

“It was a big, big effort, but we got it done. And now 30 cities have followed suit,” said Cheryl Davila, a Berkeley City Councilmember.

Vancouver, British Columbia started pursuing its goal to become the world’s greenest city nearly a decade ago. Since then, it has passed a ban on new coal terminals, strongly opposed oil pipeline expansion through coastal waters, and prohibited gas heating in new buildings.

“You have to have a vision of where you’re going or you’re not going to bring anyone along,” said Andrea Reimer, a former City Councilmember in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Most people are called to action by being part of a bigger vision than their own.”

City leaders in Baltimore, Maryland not only succeeded in passing regulatory policies to stop a dangerous oil train facility from being built in their city, they also worked to broaden the definition of what people think of as “fossil fuel infrastructure” to include things like parking lots.

“If we’re really going to be serious about the immediacy of climate change, then we have to broaden our definition of what we think of as fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Ryan Dorsey, a Baltimore City Councilmember. “We have to be inclusive of everything that supports and perpetuates a way of life and dependency on fossil fuel-burning automobiles.” 

In King County, Wasington, leaders amended their comprehensive plan — a document that establishes a framework for how the county should grow — to create more rigorous regulations for siting or expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.

Other locations have taken action, too. Portland, Oregon passed regulatory policies to ban bulk oil storage, preventing an oil train facility from being built in city limits. South Portland, Maine, used local land use ordinances to prevent the transport tar sands crude oil through the community. And just weeks ago, Culver City, next to Los Angeles, California, took the first steps to phase out oil extraction in the city’s portion of an urban oil field, which is the largest in the nation.

“By activists organizing and speaking up, it helps move what was radical into the normal. Then local legislators can build on that momentum,” said Upthegrove. 

A climate emergency

As more and more people wake up to the climate emergency — witnessing with increasing frequency extreme droughts, massive wildfires, and destructive hurricanes — SAFE Cities organizers hope to see an explosion in the movement where local communities use their own regulatory power to protect public health, stop fossil fuel infrastructure, and plan for a clean energy future. 

“If we want to hit the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree climate target to avoid runaway climate change, we know we need to stop fossil fuel expansion — now,” said Liz McDowell, SAFE Cities Campaign Director at 

So far, the group has tracked (in this handy interactive map) 32 governments who have passed 37 policies to prevent the buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure and accelerate a clean energy transition in the U.S. and Canada — the vast majority in the last 2 years. That momentum is welcomed news for climate activists, after a study released by the Global Gas & Oil Network in 2019 on the fossil fuel industry’s global expansion plans found that 85% of the growth would happen in North America alone.

SAFE Cities organizers bring this urgency to their work with local leaders, providing local government resources including examples of existing ordinances, public health research, and connections to other elected officials who are dealing with similar issues. But they also work closely with activists who want to push their elected leaders for change, too, providing community resources that include everything from innovative digital tools to help activists connect with their neighbors, to a playbook on how to counter fossil fuel industry spin, guides on how to talk to elected officials, and more. 

“Fighting fossil fuel threats one at a time can feel like playing the world’s most exhausting and unfun game of whack-a-mole. The SAFE Cities movement wants to end all that. It’s time to stop playing defense and go on the offensive,” said McDowell.

Climate justice and social justice

The COVID-19 crisis laid bare the connection between air pollution and poor public health outcomes, with studies showing higher rates of death in neighborhoods near refineries or other polluting industries. That’s no surprise to people who have been living for decades with industrial projects in their backyards.

“The electrification of public spaces and tackling fossil fuel infrastructure is not only a climate issue,” said McDowell. “It is a public health and safety issue, and also an environmental justice issue.” 

When proposing local regulatory policies, leaders said it’s important to give everyone who might be impacted by the decisions a seat at the table.

“We need to make sure people impacted are at the table and part of the discussion to have their voice be heard,” said Davila.

“Asking ‘How are we going to get there together?’ is where equity and justice and diversity have to come into play,” said Reimer. “How do we give people a voice? We get out of the way and give them the best opportunity to speak for themselves.”

Power with the people

The former and current city and county council members speaking during NYC Climate Week had inspiring advice to the climate activists who live in communities where they are just getting started in the SAFE Cities movement. 

“Have courage to do the right thing and hopefully people will follow,” said Davila.

“Go big, shoot the moon, and go places that are unexpected. Be willing to lead the conversation in a direction no one else has taken it,” said Dorsey.

“It always starts with community — having heart, joy, passion, and hope they can make a difference. We have a broken political system, but at the end of the day the power is with the people,” said Upthegrove.