Florida Elected Officials Join Environmentalists In Opposing Utility Preemption Bill

Apr 20, 2021
Originally published on April 20, 2021 10:38 am

Local governments wouldn't be able to ban or restrict the types of fuels utilities use to power customer's homes and businesses under a bill that has cleared its last House committee stop. Those powers would be preempted to the state. Rep. Josie Tomkow (R-Auburndale) is sponsoring the House bill. She wants to prevent local governments from banning natural gas as a fuel utilized to power buildings. Tomkow points to Pinellas, Miami, and Tampa as areas that attempted to ban natural gas.

"I know for me, someone who uses dual source of energy at my home we have a cross between solar and natural gas—that is very problematic," Tomkow says.

David Cullen with Sierra Club Florida says local governments that want to eventually get to 100% renewable energy won't be able to if Tomkow's bill is signed into law.

"We can't get to 100% renewable without cutting back and eventually stopping the use of fossil fuels including natural gas, propane, butane, and the like," Cullen says.

Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski is one of 27 elected officials from across Florida who signed a letter calling on Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls to oppose Tomkow's bill. She says while the bill doesn't specifically target local government's clean energy plans, it's the first step.

"Legislation like this that passes tends to breed more legislation, and what I'd rather see the state do is comprehensive legislation for the entire state to do some of the things that we're trying to do. But what they're talking about is restricting what we can't do, and I think their approach isn't in the best interest of local government," Bujalski says.

Bujalski says her community is environmentally conscious and says her city is considering plans to be powered by 100% clean energy.

"All of those things are very important to us, so any kind of restriction on what we can do at home we're not going to like," Bujalski says.

Tallahassee City Commissioner Jack Porter also signed the letter asking legislative leaders to oppose the bill. She says the bill will undo Tallahassee's commitments to transfer to renewable energy.

"They will eliminate the rights of our local governments to determine all kinds of things about our energy efficiency, our buildings, how we power our city," Porter says.

Porter says the House and Senate bills will have far-reaching and unintended consequences—which is another reason why environmentalists like Florida Conservation Voters' Jonathan Webber oppose the measure. It bans local governments from taking any action that restricts or has the effect of restricting the fuel types utilities use.

"It's difficult to predict exactly how far this legislation will go. It could encompass everything from local gas taxes to local sulfur dioxide emissions standards to even local zoning. We don't really know but rest assured attorneys will find out the extent of this legislation for us," Webber says.

But Tomkow says her bill isn't meant to overturn local government's clean energy plans.

"This legislation does not prevent cities or utilities from implementing clean energy plans or advocating for increasing clean energy. Cities can and should continue to support clean energy, and this bill is needed to ensure cities cannot mandate the type of clean energy or mandate elimination of one type of energy source," Tomkow says.

Tomkow's proposal gained support from other Republican lawmakers like Rep. Mike Beltran (R-Valrico). He says if people want to diversify away from natural gas, they still can do that.

"We're not limiting folks to natural gas; we're just saying that the municipalities can't regulate them. If everyone wanted to go away from natural gas, then presumably, they would've done that already, but in fact, there are many people who prefer to use natural gas for whatever purpose they decide to use it for," Beltran says.

The Senate companion to Tomkow's bill is heading to its last committee stop this week.

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