Cities Must be Able to Make Their Own Energy Mistakes

State governments around the country are eroding local control in an effort to protect consumers and energy companies. They are setting a dangerous precedent.
A Chevron gas station in California. Reuters/Mike Blake

In a unanimous vote in February, the city of Petaluma, California voted to implement a permanent ban on the construction of new gas stations. Their vote, to be fair, will have little impact on people outside of that community. But the small city’s vote is indicative of a larger movement by cities and counties around the nation looking to have a say over their own energy futures. 

While most policymakers are not pushing to ban gas stations, there are a number of cities taking active measures to move towards clean energy, most often in the form of banning natural gas hookups in new buildings. 

The decision to move toward restrictive energy policies and impractical building codes leaves the gas industry, small business owners, and many homeowners deeply concerned—often for valid reasons. In an effort to block these local initiatives, 17 states, including Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Florida, have introduced bills that would strip local governments of the authority to set zero-emission building codes or ban natural gas hookups in new buildings. 

These bills have raised an important question for leaders across the United States. What measures should city and county-level officials have the authority to pursue in order to mitigate climate change’s effects?  

While banning gas stations or setting restrictive building codes may be bad urban policy, federalism allows local communities to make their own decisions: even poor ones. Taking blanket measures to strip powers from local leaders is the wrong way for policymakers to combat bad energy policy: rather than limiting the ability of communities to govern themselves, opponents of local natural gas bans are better served by directly lobbying their lawmakers. 

Every time a town, city, or county votes to govern itself in a certain way and is slapped down by the state represents a challenge to the American ideal of self-governance. It is not the role of federal or state governments to ensure its lower levels vote the ‘right’ way, for as long as they do not violate their citizens’ rights, it is well within the authority of municipalities to govern themselves—even when they pursue bad policies. 

State officials opposed to progressive environmental policies are operating under the false presumption that conservative causes will be best served by eliminating local control. State preemption—when state governments restrict the ability of a lower level of government to self-regulate—would challenge the ability of local governments to pass policies that differ from those of the statehouse. For conservatives who value federalism and empowering local governments, supporting state preemption sets a dangerous precedent.

So, why does it matter to residents of Austin or Columbus what type of energy regulations Petaluma chooses to pursue? Justice Louis Brandeis described how “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Today, local governments serve as laboratories of innovation where communities can pursue novel policies without harming their neighbors. 

Local governments are the best suited bodies to experiment with solutions to issues affecting local communities, including climate change, because for each bad solution to the climate crisis proposed by a city council, there are dozens of innovative ones compatible with the free market. By maintaining a say over their energy policies, communities are able to work with local companies to build clean infrastructure, promote innovative agricultural practices, protect their coasts, and provide incentives for companies practicing clean energy.

A coastal city where rising sea levels are a real concern has different needs than one near a mountain range. It should not lose its ability to adapt its building codes or pursue innovative policy solutions to meet its environmental goals.  

The simple fact is that a government closest to the people governs best. States must trust communities to make decisions for themselves regarding how to respond to the problems they face. American voters should act with skepticism whenever their representatives take away the ability for communities to regulate themselves. Now, more than ever in our age of ever-growing centralized authority, we must empower local governments to define their own energy futures, not put their lights out. 

Nico Zviovich, managing editor of The California Review, is a policy professional based in Atlanta, Georgia and is Georgia’s state coordinator for the American Conservation Coalition.