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Miami Backs Away from Plan to End Natural Gas Hookups

The local gas utility called the plan’s language “problematic for our industry.” Miami floated the idea for a new policy banning hookups starting with new construction and expanding to city building retrofits.

(TNS) — On Earth Day, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez stood in front of City Hall and announced an “unequivocal promise” to his residents: to slash the city’s greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the worst effects of climate change on the vulnerable coastal city.

The plan, Miami Forever Carbon Neutral, had bold strategies to boost electric cars, make buildings more efficient and plaster the city’s buildings with solar power. It had also undergone some key changes in the days before its release, prompted by a natural gas company that stood to lose customers and business if the city went forward with its plans to cut down on fossil fuel emissions.

In emails obtained by the Miami Herald via public records request, a representative from TECO People’s Gas called the policies “problematic for our industry” and suggested alternate language the city should use instead.

In response, the city removed the offending policies and watered down its goals to cut down on natural gas. Miami’s former Chief Resilience Officer Alan Dodd emailed the TECO representative back noting that there were “a lot of revisions to be more accommodating, while still focusing on long term net zero goal.”

Natural gas bans have grown increasingly popular around the country, particularly in California and northern cities where natural gas is commonly used for heating. In response, natural gas interests have begun a fierce lobbying campaign to weaken anti-natural gas policies at the city and state levels. Florida is one of more than a dozen states with a new law that blocks cities from banning natural gas.

The city of Miami did not make Suarez or any resilience office staffers available for interviews, but in a statement, the city’s communications office pointed to the city’s greenhouse gas strategies and said, “In developing these plans and initiatives, the City has accepted input from residents, as well as from internal and external stakeholders.”

The city commission is set to approve the final draft of its carbon neutrality plan Thursday — a version with even weaker goals than the draft version from Earth Day.

No more natural gas hookups

In a February 23 presentation, the city first publicly floated the idea of a policy banning natural gas hookups in new construction, as well as retrofits requiring 40% of the city’s buildings that rely on natural gas for space and water heating to convert to electric systems. The two actions together would cut down on more emissions than cutting the number of people getting around in single-passenger vehicles by 15%.

The plan was to release a draft version of the emissions-cutting strategy on Earth Day in April. But the week before the draft plan was announced, city staffers sent the relevant natural gas policies to TECO Peoples Gas.

Sergio Abreu Jr., TECO’s regional manager for external affairs, fired back with a strongly worded email and a document rewriting all the city’s suggested policies, documents obtained by the Miami Herald reveal.

“As we’ve stated from the very beginning, our preference is for the City to completely remove the proposed language,” Abreu wrote.

He called the ban on new natural gas hookups “premature” and unnecessary to meet the city’s goal of zero emissions by 2050.

“Your proposed language asks customers to start eliminating their natural gas appliances starting in next year, 2022. This will include significant expenses to not only convert the appliance but the supporting appliance infrastructure in the walls,” he wrote.

The city’s original suggested policies would halt natural gas hookups in new construction and require buildings to replace natural gas heating and cooking implements with electric systems “at the end of useful life starting in 2025.” It did not, as Abreu stated in his email, call for Miami residents to get rid of gas appliances starting next year.

Abreu’s proposed “modified language” that would completely eliminate the ban on natural gas hookups in new construction and change the gas-to-electric replacement policy with a requirement that buildings “meet the carbon footprint objectives, regardless of energy sources at end of useful life starting in 2035.”

Abreu’s email also included a task list “as requested by the mayor and discussed in our conversation” of projects city employees should explore to lower carbon emissions in a way that doesn’t harm the gas company’s business model.

The projects include burning natural gas released from Miami landfills and wastewater treatment facilities for energy, capturing carbon emissions while they’re burned but before they escape into the atmosphere and potentially using hydrogen as a clean source of gas-like fuel.

Carbon capture and hydrogen are both popular climate solutions within the fossil fuel industry because of promising technology that shows they could cut down on emissions. However, the technology is not quite there for using either strategy yet, and they’re far more expensive than more mainstream, popular alternatives like switching to renewable energy or becoming more energy efficient.

Abreu’s main argument against the ban is that burning natural gas at the source — like while heating water on a stove — releases fewer greenhouse gases than using an electric stove that uses energy from a power plant that burns natural gas as fuel. He wrote (in all caps) that “at a minimum, this change should occur after the city has committed to (and paid to commit) to change to a fully renewable alternative electric model.”

Changes are made

Abreu followed up multiple times before the city was due to release its draft plan, asking whether the city planned to remove the offending language. The day before its release, then-resilience officer Dodd emailed him back assuring him changes were being made.

Those changes were revealed in the draft version released on Earth Day.

The proposed ban on natural gas hookups in new construction was slashed. Instead, the plan called for 100% “net zero emissions” in new construction by 2030. It suggested that new construction buildings could either be all-electric or include devices that run on “renewable natural gas” or RNG, a concept mentioned repeatedly in Abreu’s letter.

RNG refers to the methane harvested from landfills and wastewater treatment plants, and proponents call it “carbon-free.” While that gas usually does not contain carbon dioxide, it’s primarily made of methane, which is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping atmospheric gas.

In the final draft of the GHG plan, which will be announced at a commission meeting on the 18th, that 100% net-zero emissions new construction goal fell to a target of 5% by 2035. Some of that weakening was likely influenced by Florida’s new law blocking natural gas bans.

Other changes moved the goalposts entirely.

The original goal that 40% of buildings that run on natural gas systems convert to electricity by 2035 was changed to a 60% overall reduction in natural gas emissions from buildings. Now a building could achieve the goal while still using natural gas systems but by being more energy efficient.

In the upcoming final draft, that 60% reduction goal dropped to 35% by 2035.

During the April announcement of the draft plan, Mayor Suarez pointed out Abreu in the audience and thanked him by name for all his help with the plan.

The same day the draft plan for greenhouse gas emissions was released, the city voted to approve a 30-year citywide franchise agreement with TECO.

The next day, Suarez, who won reelection Nov. 2, received a campaign donation from a member of TECO Peoples Gas board of directors. Former Republican state lawmaker Will Weatherford, a Peoples Gas board member and principal of a Tampa Bay-area investment firm, gave one of Suarez’s political committees $5,000 on April 23.

Soon after the draft plan was released, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that prohibited local governments from banning natural gas hookups. A public records request showed that Abreu stopped emailing the city about its proposal after that.

Abreu did not respond to requests for comment, but Sylvia Vega, a spokesperson for TECO Peoples Gas, said in a statement that the company “actively participated with the city of Miami in its planning for reduced greenhouse gas emissions and a clean energy future.”

“Natural gas is an important part of a diverse energy mix to ensure reliability and affordability while helping Florida’s communities achieve their economic and sustainability goals,” she said.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.

©2021 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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