Pensacola, Florida
Saturday May 25th 2019

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How Green Will Pensacola Go?

By Jeremy Morrison

Around the planet, communities and governments are planning and strategizing how best to address the impacts and causes of climate change. In Florida, coastal areas like Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa are trying to take proactive approaches to the issue.

Locally, it is a particularly ripe time on the environmental front in Pensacola. In the coming months, city officials will wade into two separate reports that have the potential to shape the municipality’s environmental posture. City council will get into the findings of its climate change report released last fall, and Mayor Grover Robinson will receive recommendations from his transition team, an element of which is dedicated to environmental concerns.

Both the climate report and mayoral recommendations will aim to put the city on a path toward minimizing its environmental impact while also adapting to a changing climate. Some of the prescriptions outlined in each may be immediately achievable, the so-called low-hanging fruit, while others will be much loftier—more difficult, more expensive, philosophically foreign—and perhaps idealistic.

The question is, how far is Pensacola willing to go to achieve a greener city? Especially when some of the environmental recommendations laid upon its table may seem unrealistic, overly ambitious, maybe even blasphemous or at least out in left field—where the city keeps its sacred cash cow and gaseous golden goose.

A Step Ahead of the Game
Last November, the federal government released a fairly dismal report detailing the potential impacts of climate change across the country. The report came on the heels of Pensacola’s own “Climate Action Recommendations: A Blueprint for Addressing Climate Change at the Municipal Level.”

Pensacola’s report outlines potential threats to the area as well as how best to mitigate those threats.

“Basically, in a nutshell, it boils down to, how are we going to become a resilient, sustainable community? How are we going to reduce our vulnerabilities?” said Laurie Murphy, executive director for environmental organization Emerald Coastkeeper, who served as vice chairman for the city’s Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Task Force.

Exploring environmental impacts on a number of areas of concern—such as transportation, emergency planning, utilities and public health—the report highlights areas the city should focus on and makes a number of recommendations for addressing things like stronger hurricanes and heavier rains.

Recommendations listed in the report include assessing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions in order to establish a baseline; signing onto the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement; bringing someone on board to oversee environmental efforts; committing city properties to 30 percent renewable energy by 2030; striving for a more walkable, less vehicle-centric landscape; reducing development densities in flood zones; and seeking grant funding to support environmental efforts.

Some of the report’s recommendations, Murphy said, can be taken up pretty quickly.

“Low-hanging fruit?” she asked. “Low-impact development, for example. Can we put in some bioretention swales downtown on some of the flooded streets to help reduce some of the flooding? Can we change out our lighting? Can we do solar lighting on parking spots?”

Murphy added, “You know, there’s a lot of things that we can do to make some small changes.”

Other items, such as the renewable energy targets, will take more time and effort.

“Some of these things are not going to be overnight. Some of these things are going to be long-term planning,” Murphy said.

Currently, the task force’s report sits with the city’s Environmental Advisory Board. City Council Executive Don Kraher said board members will mull the report a bit longer before forwarding it to council with their own notes attached.

Murphy is hopeful the city has the appetite to act on some of the group’s findings.

“I think that it really depends on where we go from here,” she said. “If we can become a more proactive community, along with local government, instead of reactive, waiting for it to happen and trying to fix it, I think that we’ll be a step ahead of the game.”

We’re Going There
When Mayor Robinson was elected into office last fall, he assembled a transition team and tasked its members with digging into the city and offering up recommendations for improvement. Each member was assigned a particular area of research, with local sustainable planner Christian Wagley asked to assess environmental concerns.

Wagley is the type of environmental dreamer who can close his eyes and envision a future powered by non-polluting, renewable forms of energy. In fact, such a destination is already a foregone conclusion. He’s just waiting for everyone else to realize this.

“We’re going there. And Pensacola’s going to go there, as well,” Wagley said. “The only question is, how soon? That’s what the tension is going to be about, and what the debate is going to be about, is how soon do we go there?”

The transition team will soon issue its report to Robinson, and while Wagley is holding off on revealing what he’ll be recommending to the mayor—“I don’t want to tip my hand too much”—he did indicate his portion would pertain to issues like trees, climate change, stormwater, renewable energy and creating a more walkable community.

One of the sexier recommendations Wagley is considering pertains to solar power and dovetails with aspects of the city’s climate mitigation report. He feels the city should install photovoltaic systems on municipally-owned buildings and begin generating some of its own power in an effort to offset its carbon footprint and also cut energy costs.

“They’ve got to do that. That’s low-hanging fruit, really. That’s the proverbial low-hanging fruit,” Wagley said. “The city needs to start generating some of its own renewable energy. I mean, that’s what other cities are doing; we’re a little behind on that.”

Some people might say the city already does deal in renewable energy. At least, that’s what Chief Financial Officer Dick Barker said when Wagley breeched the notion of ditching Pensacola Energy, the city-owned natural gas utility.

“That was an extremely interesting experience for me in seeing how the city, at least from a budgetary standpoint, looks at energy,” Wagley recalled.

Before painting natural gas as green, Barker had just finished explaining how the city receives around $8 million annually, or nearly 15 percent of its general fund budget, from the utility. The thought of walking away from natural gas and the revenues it brings seemed to trigger the CFO’s philosophical gag reflex.

“If you recall, he said from a budgetary standpoint that the city hopes for cold winters and hot summers because that leads to greater energy use, which leads to greater revenues for the city,” Wagley continued. “The problem is, that’s a disaster for the environment. All of our work is toward using less energy and then transitioning to renewable forms of energy, and natural gas is not one of those.”

Pensacola’s relationship with natural gas represents perhaps the city’s biggest conflict standing in the way of embracing an environmentally-friendly and progressive approach.  And it’s not a relationship that’s likely to change anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean Wagley won’t throw it out there.

“What we can’t do is just completely avoid talking about it, which is what we’ve done so far,” Wagley said. “The burning of fossil fuels is absolutely on its way out, and we can’t continue to dig ourselves in deeper to that. I mean, we’re going to get left behind economically and certainly environmentally.”

For now, though, it’d be nice to just shoot for the really low-hanging fruit—the fruit already fallen to the ground—and get that greenhouse gas emission baseline established.

“They need to know what they’re emitting themselves,” Wagley said. “You can’t improve on something if you don’t know where you are. And right now, the city doesn’t know where they are.”