Emboldened by federal inaction, SAFE Cities steps up fight against fossil fuel expansion in 2021

October 26, 2021

This is the second in a new series of policy roundups highlighting where cities and counties in the U.S. and Canada are advancing major legislation to block expansion of the fossil fuel industry and accelerate a just transition to a clean energy economy.

This is the second in a new series of policy roundups highlighting where cities and counties in the U.S. and Canada are advancing major legislation to block expansion of the fossil fuel industry and accelerate a just transition to a clean energy economy. Brought to you by Stand.earth’s SAFE Cities movement, this briefing will cover the first 10 months of 2021 and will detail the most significant votes, offer insight on news-worthy trends, and explain where to watch for upcoming votes on SAFE Cities-style policies.

As of October 2021, 110 policies meeting the SAFE standard have been enacted in 87 locations in the U.S., Canada, and in several more countries around the globe, covering more than 44 million people. These include permanent blocks on new fossil fuel infrastructure, banning construction of new gas stations, building electrification laws, or stopping the transport of fossil fuels into a community. 

In declaring a “code-red for humanity,” the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been a clarion call to end the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. This will be necessary to achieve the deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions required to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of global warming. The report also clarified and reinforced the purpose behind stopping fossil fuel expansion: If humanity can achieve these deep cuts, the world will be spared of the most dire climate outcomes and global temperatures will stabilize.

Recognizing this urgent mandate for action, dozens of communities across the U.S. and Canada – as well as several more around the globe – have enacted SAFE Cities-style policies that effectively stop new fossil fuel infrastructure projects. These policies have the power to implement all-electric building and transportation standards, accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy, and ensure a just transition for workers and refinery communities.

The SAFE Cities movement has now surpassed the century mark – 110 policies and resolutions that meet the SAFE standard have been enacted and cover a population of 44 million people. This wave of momentum reached new heights in July when a landmark climate policy was enacted in Whatcom County, Wash., that set a national precedent for local land-use regulation of the fossil fuel industry. In 2021, more cities joined such as Yakima, Wash., Des Moines, Iowa, and Larimer County, Colo.

Cities flex climate leadership

The SAFE Cities map tracks policies location by location, so you can follow progress in your community or region and get the most up-to-date information.

Portland, Ore., stands up to Big Oil — and wins: In a major blow to oil-by-rail company Zenith Energy’s expansion plans, the city government announced on Aug. 27 they were denying a permit necessary for Zenith’s continued operations. Throughout 2021, citizens, leaders representing Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities, climate justice advocates, and more than two dozen state lawmakers and county elected officials have expressed outrage at how Zenith quietly expanded its oil-by-rail terminal in Portland. Its shipments grew from 14 million gallons in 2018 to 234 million gallons in 2020, which was a flagrant violation of the city’s 2016 climate policy to stop all new and expanded fossil fuel infrastructure. On that basis, the city government, following the leadership of Portland City Commissioners Dan Ryan and Carmen Rubio, denied Zenith a land-use compatibility statement required for the company to renew its air quality permits from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. On Sept. 1, the DEQ announced it was denying the air quality permit, throwing greater doubt onto the company’s current and future operations.

SAFE Cities’ network of elected officials and staff grows in number, influence: A core part of the SAFE Cities movement is its expanding nationwide network of elected officials and staff. SAFE Cities held the kickoff event for this network in April. In partnership with Elected Officials to Protect America, it has hosted bimonthly events in the summer and fall. These events help to share draft policies, insights, and resources; workshop policies, messaging, and strategies for building community support; identify and explore key national, state, and local issues; and celebrate wins and other achievements. The network has expanded to include about 100 people representing local jurisdictions from 13 states.

Whatcom County, WA, became the first county in the U.S. to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure: On July 27, the Whatcom County Council voted unanimously to approve rules for its Cherry Point industrial area that permanently prohibit any new refinery, fossil fuel transshipment facility, coal plant, pier, and wharf, while placing groundbreaking restrictions on existing facilities’ abilities to expand. Whatcom County is home to two of the five oil refineries in Washington state, and refining operations have comprised a significant portion of the county’s economy for decades.

For the last five years, SAFE Cities has worked with community members, local environmental group RE Sources, county councilmembers Todd Donovan, Barry Buchanan, Carol Frazey, and Rud Browne, as well as County Executive Satpal Sidhu, to draft these regulations. This policy’s scope, permanent duration, and impact on potential projects as well as the scale of existing facilities has set a national precedent for local land use regulation of the fossil fuel industry. These rules offer a blueprint for other refinery communities to follow, but their impact will be so much larger. They represent a powerful demonstration of a tool that any community can use to move away from fighting against the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, and begin working toward a carbon-free economic future. Crucially, these rules—alongside examples set in other communities in the U.S. and around the world—align with the actions needed to meet the 1.5C goal identified in the Paris Agreement and in a major recent International Energy Agency report.

Golden state reaches major milestone in electrification movement: On Sept. 22, California communities hit an impressive milestone. The city of Encinitas became the 50th city statewide to adopt a building electrification policy, just over two years after the city of Berkeley adopted the first in the U.S. The rapid spread of this policy innovation has sparked a nationwide movement, and half of California’s eight largest cities—San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Oakland—have approved them. 

The policies have garnered widespread support from small business owners, restaurateurs, community residents, vulnerable populations at risk from natural gas appliances’ indoor air pollution, and some labor unions. The Sacramento City Council approved its policy on June 1 with the full support of the UA Local 447, whose membership includes workers in the piping industry in the Sacramento region. The ordinance takes partial effect in 2023 and full effect in 2026, and is expected to result in a 20 percent decrease in Local 447’s jobs. Despite this, union membership spoke in favor of the ordinance on June 1, and said they wanted to engage the city in upcoming discussions on a just transition for their workers, including finding ways to make up for lost jobs through water reuse, water conservation, and other measures aimed at addressing the extreme drought that’s gripping California. Under the leadership of City Councilmember Katie Valenzuela, the city government is working to develop a strategy for equitably and safely transitioning existing buildings off of gas hookups.

Santa Ana approves sweeping commitment to combat climate and environmental injustices: In an era of accelerating climate change, cities’ responses will be measured by their transformative ambition. On Sept. 7, the Santa Ana City Council approved a visionary commitment to transform their city for the future and to address the twin crises of climate change and environmental pollution in the process. The Climate Emergency Resolution spells out a series of actions that, when implemented, will decarbonize buildings and transportation, prevent buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure, implement land-use changes that would devote more lands to parks and natural spaces that combat urban heat island effects, and address new and existing sources of lead contamination. It also commits the city government to working with the business and labor communities—as well as the state and federal governments—to achieve a just transition to a fully decarbonized economy, which will be based on job creation goals centering frontline and vulnerable communities. One way to accomplish this will be through job creation goals centering frontline and vulnerable communities, as well as job retraining programs that kick start investment in clean energy, address systemic injustices and poverty, improve access to nature, and provide benefits to local ecosystems and biodiversity.

Looking forward: What to watch for next

Gearing up for a just transition in the heart of the Bay Area’s ‘refinery corridor’: Like Whatcom County, fossil fuel refining and transport have comprised significant portions of the economy in the city of Richmond and in Contra Costa County for decades. And this fall, the Richmond City Council and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors are preparing to take action to accelerate their just transitions away from fossil fuels. The Richmond City Council will soon vote on a building electrification ordinance that closely mirrors the Berkeley City Council’s robust standard, while the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors will take action on an all-electric Reach Code building ordinance. The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in August to direct staff to draft the ordinance.

Electrification movement expands in Washington state: On Aug. 16, the Shoreline City Council directed staff to begin drafting a building electrification ordinance similar to the policy adopted by the Seattle City Council in February. Shoreline’s would apply to new multi-family and commercial developments. The King County Council is currently weighing adopting a similar policy that would eliminate the majority of fossil fuel use in new commercial and large multifamily buildings, and could take action by the end of 2021. The Bellingham City Council will consider amending its commercial building code to limit natural gas use on a similar timeline.

A new report from 64 organizations throughout the Pacific Northwest shows the urgency fueling these policies, and the dangers of continuing to rely on fracked gas. It counters an ongoing misinformation campaign from utility company NW Natural, and synthesizes numerous recent studies proving that electrification is the lowest-cost way to decarbonize buildings. It also found that fracking produces the majority of the Northwest’s gas supply, and the extraction and combustion of gas creates dangerous health and public safety hazards that disproportionately affects low-income and BIPOC communities. In addition to tackling a major source of climate pollution, building electrification ordinances provide important protections for public health and safety.

Petaluma, Calif., was the first city in the U.S. to ban construction of new gas stations. Will American Canyon be the second? In the Napa Valley city of American Canyon, the community is asking if any new gas stations should be permitted and whether a Petaluma-style permanent ban on new construction is appropriate. The city of about 20,000 residents has three gas stations currently along a three-mile stretch of Highway 29, and a fourth is planned to be built. More stations have been proposed but are not progressing due to a temporary moratorium on new gas station projects. Community members are pushing for the City Council to adopt a permanent citywide ban. In nearby Sonoma County, on Sept. 13 a regional climate protection authority board voted in favor of a resolution that recommends blocking construction of new gas stations or restricting expansion of existing gas station infrastructure. The board includes representatives of the county and its nine cities, and the vote adds momentum to the efforts to advance these policies in Sonoma County jurisdictions.

Looking back: SAFE Cities in Action

South Portland, Maine, secures major court victory, affirms legal foundation supporting SAFE Cities strategy: The SAFE Cities strategy of leveraging local governments’ land use authority to stop buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure traces its roots to the city of South Portland’s 2014 Clear Skies ordinance. This ordinance set air quality standards that effectively banned loading of oil onto tankers in the city’s harbor. The city has successfully defended this ordinance against legal challenges. This summer, the Biden administration provided an amicus brief supporting the law in a pending appeal before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Two weeks later, Portland Pipe Line Corp. announced it was dropping its appeal, granting the city of South Portland a resounding legal victory. The decision further affirms local governments’ legal abilities to enact these policies, which rely on authority they possess to regulate land use and protect public health and safety.

In Spokane, Wash., a community-led effort strikes down a ballot initiative that would outlaw building electrification policy: In Washington state’s second-largest city, environmental advocates and community leaders filed a lawsuit against a ballot initiative that aimed to add a permanent prohibition on building electrification policies to the City Charter. SAFE Cities supported the effort to stop the measure. This lawsuit succeeded in August when Spokane County Superior Court Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren’s ruling blocked the initiative from appearing on ballots. An appeal of that ruling was unsuccessful. 

Vancouver, BC, defends and upholds groundbreaking climate law: In November 2020, the Vancouver City Council approved its groundbreaking Climate Emergency Action Plan with the leadership of Councillor Christine Boyle. In June, the council and Mayor Kennedy Stewart voted to uphold this law as written, and implement its zero-emissions requirement for heating and water systems in newly constructed buildings on Jan. 1, 2022. City staff and building industry representatives in Vancouver had sought a one-year delay in the requirement. However, after listening to an outpouring of comments from community members, business owners, and environmental advocates, the council voted 6-4 to preserve the law’s original timelines and ensure it remains on track to meet its targets.


Media contacts: 

Peter Jensen, SAFE Cities Communications Coordinator, safemedia@stand.earth, +1 415 532 3817 (Pacific Time)
Matt Krogh, U.S. Oil & Gas Campaigns Director, mattkrogh@stand.earth, +1 360 820 2938 (Pacific Time)