Local governments vs. the fossil fuel industry: SAFE Cities highlights major policy wins and progress in 2021

April 28, 2021

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

This is the first in a new series of quarterly roundups highlighting where cities and counties in the U.S. and Canada are advancing major policies 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 part 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 April 2021, 77 policies meeting the SAFE standard have been enacted in 60 locations throughout the U.S. and Canada, while 11 more are in progress. These policies include building electrification, temporary or permanent blocks on new fossil fuel infrastructure, banning construction of new gas stations, or stopping the transport of fossil fuels into a community.

SAFE Cities is a rapidly expanding, coordinated movement of cities and counties that are leveraging their legal authority to regulate land use and protect public health to stop the growth of the fossil fuel industry in their communities. A core part of SAFE Cities is its growing network of elected officials and staff. This network makes it simple to share draft policies, host strategy sessions, and organize against industry pressure campaigns and PR tactics. SAFE Cities held the official kickoff event for this network on April 14, so stay tuned for more public communication, updates, and actions from leaders of this group as a steering committee is established.

Taken collectively on a national scale—and in strategic locations where policies can have an outsized impact on supply and distribution—these actions are what’s needed to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure before it’s even proposed, 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 is a sister campaign to the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is fostering unprecedented international cooperation to support national action to stop fossil fuel expansion, start to ramp down oil and gas production, and support a just transition. While cities in the U.S. and around the world endorse the call for the Treaty, SAFE Cities will support local governments in directly implementing the Treaty’s principles through actionable ordinances and revolutions that name and constrain fossil fuels.    

On April 21, L.A. became the first city in the U.S. to endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, joining a global movement that includes cities like Barcelona, Vancouver, B.C., and several within the U.K calling for national governments to negotiate and ratify a treaty to stop fossil fuel expansion, phase out fossil fuels, and ensure a global just transition for all. Hundreds of organizations representing thousands more individuals have also joined the call for world leaders to stop fossil fuel expansion. They join hundreds of scientists and 101 Nobel Laureates such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama in calling for this action. 

Petaluma, CA, garnered worldwide attention and applause in March when its City Council voted to ban the construction of new gas stations. That made Petaluma the first city in the U.S. to approve this policy, marking a significant political and cultural moment where the public is re-framing and re-evaluating the need for an iconic symbol of fossil fuel consumption – the gas station. The policy was the result of the leadership of Mayor Teresa Barrett and Councilmember D’Lynda Fischer, as well as the strong advocacy efforts of the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations, 350 Petaluma, and Climate Action Petaluma.

Eugene, OR, flexes a muscle that could become a ‘superpower for climate action’: In 2019 the Sustainability Commission of the City of Eugene recommended several steps to phase out fracked gas use, including adding several new policies into the franchise agreement between the city and the fracked gas utility, NW Natural. These new policies would limit growth of fracked gas infrastructure and encourage reduced gas use. The Fossil Free Eugene coalition, which SAFE Cities is working with, aims to get Eugene completely off fracked gas and has been growing public support for this overhaul of the franchise agreement. So far the City Council has held the line, not voting to renew the agreement. It is set to expire in May. In a recent High Country News article the Sightline Institute said this franchise agreement approach could be “a superpower when it comes to decarbonization.”

Building electrification movement reaches new communities: In Tacoma, WA, the City Council approved a policy on April 20 that will prohibit new city-owned buildings from consuming fracked gas and fossil fuels, while it considers extending that rule for new residential and commercial developments. 

Chester County, PA, is demonstrating bold strokes leadership as the Planning Commission has introduced a draft Climate Action Plan that calls for stopping new fossil fuel infrastructure growth by limiting new easements for related projects on County property. This would affect liquified natural gas (LNG) and other new fossil fuel infrastructure projects.

Looking forward: What to watch for in Q2

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

Whatcom County, WA, prepares to permanently prohibit any new refinery or transshipment facility: In a move that heralds a wider transition to a post-carbon economy,  the Whatcom County Council is preparing to approve rules that will permanently prohibit any new refinery, fossil fuel transshipment facility, coal plant, pier, and wharf. 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. The regulations will also severely limit any piecemeal expansion of existing refineries at the Cherry Point industrial site—home to two of Washington’s five oil refineries. Versions of these rules have been in place on a temporary basis for the past four years, but the county council is expected to vote on the final amendments in May. When approved, the rules will be a blueprint for other refinery communities to follow, but will also signal a broader shift, demonstrating that communities have a powerful tool they can use to move away from fighting against the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, and begin working toward a carbon-free economic future. 

Industry-driven “ban the bans” campaign aims to restrict local autonomy: As dozens of cities have approved building electrification policies, more states have joined an industry-driven campaign to approve “ban the ban” bills that restrict communities’ autonomy and preempt their abilities to enact electrification ordinances. As of April 15, legislatures in 13 states have approved these laws over the past two years—Utah, Iowa, West Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky, Georgia, Kansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi. These bills ensure that fracked gas continues to pollute homes and businesses, and further delay necessary action to transition to clean energy resources, but the SAFE Cities movement is bigger than just bans on methane gas hookups. Cities and counties have many more policy tools available to them to stop the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, including electrifying transit fleets, banning construction of new gas stations, blocking bulk fossil fuel storage facilities or other components of supply chain infrastructure, as well as numerous other actions.

Petaluma led the way, and more cities are considering gas station bans: Petaluma has already sparked a trend: More cities in Sonoma County are already considering ordinances that will prohibit the construction of new gas stations. Sebastopol and Santa Rosa are in the process of deliberating these policies, and may soon schedule votes. This growing national trend will hold major companies like Costco accountable as they continue to plan to construct more gas stations while telling the public they plan to take action that will seriously address their greenhouse gas emissions.

SAFE Cities is supporting the passage of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty endorsement from New York City, as well as a SAFE Cities commitment and Treaty endorsement from Santa Ana, CA.  

Looking back: SAFE Cities in Action

New York City remains a gold standard for building electrification: Dozens of cities have passed building electrification policies that ban fracked gas hookups in new buildings, but New York City’s Local Law 97, championed by recently-retired Councilmember Costa Constantinides and the Climate Works for All coalition, remains a gold standard for SAFE Cities as the first policy in North America to address greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings. The law was passed in 2019, Councilmember Constantinides and Climate Works for All were successful in expanding the number of buildings that must comply with the law in 2020, and they defended the law from a state budget provision that would have undermined it in early 2021.

Vancouver, BC, joins push to decarbonize existing buildings, endorses Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty: With the approval of its groundbreaking Climate Emergency Action Plan, championed by Councillor Christine Boyle, the Vancouver City Council joined New York in addressing greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings. SAFE Cities was proud to join support Vancouver in becoming the second major city in North America to take this action. The City Council was also the first major city in the world to endorse SAFE Cities’ international sister campaign: the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Working in the U.S. and around the world, the treaty acquires ironclad commitments to end all new exploration and production of fossil fuels, phase out existing stockpiles and production, and achieve a just transition for workers, communities, and countries. The city of Barcelona endorsed the treaty in January, while New York is currently considering a motion to endorse the treaty.