March 26, 2015

Exploding trains, backroom deals, and a warming planet: Big Oil is a bad neighbor

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, ND. Photo courtesy http://earthjustice.org.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, outside Casselton, ND.
Photo courtesy http://earthjustice.org.

The Bay Area has a long and complicated relationship with the oil industry. The region is home to five refineries, the oldest of which started operating in the late 19th century. Chevron, Shell, Phillips 66, Valero, and Tesoro are five of the top seven producers of oil products in California and their Bay Area facilities represent about 40% of the state’s total refining capacity.

As we’ve described in previous articles in this publication, the oil market is changing as the world runs out of accessible crude extracted through “conventional” methods. New grades of “extreme” crudes like Bakken shale oil and Canadian tar sands are extracted through energy-intensive and highly-polluting methods like fracking and clear-cutting forests to mine for tar sands beneath them. All along the journey from the ground to refineries to your car’s fuel tank, extreme fuels leave behind a long list of devastating impacts on climate and public health.

The dangers to public safety are multiplied when extreme oil is transported from its extraction site to refineries by rail. Activists have coined these trains “bomb trains” because when they derail, they tend to explode, incinerating anything in their path and sending fireballs hundreds of feet into the air. There were four train derailments in North America between mid February and mid March, all of which caused explosions that were so intense that emergency responders let the fires burn themselves out instead of fighting them. The derailments in West Virginia and Illinois also spilled large amounts of oil into nearby rivers that provide drinking water to the neighboring communities. The oil and rail industries continue to claim that crude-by-rail accidents are anomalies that are few and far between. With four accidents within one month, those claims cannot be taken seriously.

The Bay Area’s one existing crude-by-rail terminal is operated by Kinder Morgan in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard in Richmond. This terminal was given a permit to operate by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) in late 2012, without any public process or input from local decision makers. The Richmond City Council passed a resolution asking BAAQMD to revoke the permit for this terminal as it poses extreme danger to the community and is in close proximity to the Point Richmond business district, homes, and an elementary school. Many community-based organizations, including the Bay Chapter, have joined the call to revoke this permit.

Until recently, the Kinder Morgan terminal was bringing two 100-car trains of Bakken shale oil to Richmond each month. From Richmond, the unrefined crude was offloaded to trucks and driven to the Tesoro refinery near Martinez. In late November 2014, Kinder Morgan stopped receiving shipments of Bakken shale when the global price of crude oil dropped sharply. Investment in extraction of extreme crudes relies on long-term oil dependence and consistent profits. When global oil prices tanked in the fall and into the winter, the production of these extreme crudes started to become economically unsound. Kinder Morgan still has a permit to operate their crude-by-rail terminal, and can resume bringing dangerous oil trains into Richmond whenever they choose, with no public notice.

The Kinder Morgan facility is just one example of how the oil industry operates in the Bay Area: behind closed doors, with little public process or input, and often in coordination with elected officials whose first priority should be representing the interests of the communities surrounding these refineries — not those of the oil companies.

In addition to the Kinder Morgan terminal, there are several other proposed refinery projects that would bring extreme oil into the Bay Area:

  • a rail spur at the Valero refinery in Benicia;
  • the WesPac mega oil terminal in Pittsburg to bring in crude oil by barge and rail; and
  • a complicated  project to import Canadian tar sands oil by rail for processing at two linked Phillips 66 refineries in Rodeo and San Luis Obispo County (see “Toxic tar sands at center of Phillips 66 plans for Bay Area“).

There was some hope that lower oil prices would cause some of these projects to be delayed or cancelled altogether, but the future of each project is still uncertain. The WesPac project has been in limbo for the past year, while the environmental review for the Valero crude-by-rail project is being recirculated for the third time. The Rodeo portion of the Phillips 66 project was approved last month by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, while the San Luis Obisbo portion has stacked up thousands of letters of opposition as it goes through the environmental review process.

Throughout California, more that 5.5 million people live within the “blast zone”, which spans a quarter mile on either side of the railroad tracks. We’ve seen too many derailments that result in explosions and we know that our air, our water, our health, and our lives are being risked for the profit of the richest industry in the history of the planet. Residents across the state are rising up in opposition to the transport of extreme oil through our communities by rail, by barge, by pipeline, and by truck. Join the movement to keep these dirty and dangerous fuels in the ground. To get involved, email Bay Chapter conservation manager Jess Dervin-Ackerman at jess@sfbaysc.org.

Community Choice energy programs surge across the region

Bay Chapter conservation organizers Jess Dervin Ackerman and Ratha Lai rally for Community Choice energy at the February 2015 March for Real Climate Leadership in Oakland.

Bay Chapter conservation organizers Jess Dervin Ackerman and Ratha Lai rally for Community Choice energy at the February 2015 March for Real Climate Leadership in Oakland.

Community Choice energy is catching on across the region, confirming the Bay Area’s position as a leader in the transition to a clean-energy economy. Depending where you live, your home or business may already be powered by the cleaner electricity provided by a Community Choice program — and if you’re not right now, it’s just a matter of time.

Community Choice energy (also known as Community Choice Aggregation, or CCA) is an alternative to the old model of the corporate utility monopoly that empowers governments to pool electricity customers to form a local power agency. Communities are thus able to provide power to local customers by purchasing renewable energy on the open market or by investing in local renewable infrastructure. Whereas PG&E relies on electricity from dirty and carbon-intensive sources, Community Choice programs choose clean and renewable power — and the benefits accrue locally, rather than to the shareholders of a for-profit utility like PG&E.

Since Marin Clean Energy (MCE) became California’s first Community Choice energy program in 2010, the power model has spread beyond Marin County as more communities recognize the extensive benefits that Community Choice provides. These benefits include local green jobs and investment in the local economy; cleaner air and a lower carbon footprint; and freedom from the unstable and steadily-increasing costs of electricity generated by fossil fuels.

Marin (and beyond!): a model for the region

3.4.15costcomparisons-RES-650x298Since its founding in 2010, MCE has expanded to cover unincorporated Napa County and the cities of Benicia, El Cerrito, Richmond, and San Pablo. By May of 2015, the program is projected to serve 165,000 customers in three counties.

MCE has been an unambiguous success for customers, the environment, and the local economy, as evidenced by the growing list of cities that wish to join its program. With a base rate that is cheaper and cleaner than PG&E’s, MCE saved its 125,000 customers more than $5.9 million in 2014. The program has created permanent local jobs and contracts for services like information technology and energy efficiency with local companies. Even more jobs are created as part of projects to develop local renewable-energy resources like a 2- to 5-megawatt solar plant at the Port of Richmond, scheduled for completion in 2016. MCE’s sustainable-workforce policy prioritizes fair compensation and support for local businesses, union labor, and apprenticeship programs — policies that are good for individual workers and the economy as a whole.

People who live in MCE’s service area are automatically enrolled in the “Light Green” 50-percent-renewable energy program. Residents or business customers who have the resources and desire to do more for the environment can opt up to “Deep Green” 100-percent-renewable energy. Deep Green costs only a penny more per kilowatt-hour than Light Green rates, so for most residential customers, the additional cost is less than $5 per month. In addition to slashing their carbon footprint, customers who opt up to 100-percent-renewable energy also support the development of new, local renewable-energy projects; half of the revenue from the Deep Green premium is directed to a local renewable-development fund for projects like the Port of Richmond solar installation.

MCE is launching a second 100-percent-clean energy choice called Local Sol that will draw its power from local solar installations. In its initial phase, Local Sol is limited to 200 participants. If you live in MCE’s service area and you want to learn more about opting up to either Deep Green or Local Sol, visit www.mcecleanenergy.org/power-choices.

Contra Costa County: a growing call for Community Choice

CCA_SolarPanel_constructionSince we last wrote about Community Choice in this publication last fall, three more cities in Contra Costa County have joined Marin Clean Energy. In February, enrollment notices for residents of El Cerrito, Benicia, and San Pablo landed in mailboxes, alerting them that they’ll soon be automatically enrolled in the clean-energy program.

Lafayette may be the next city in Contra Costa County to jump on the MCE bandwagon. The city’s Environmental Task Force has recommended that the city council authorize a feasibility study to evaluate joining Marin Clean Energy. Walnut Creek took this step last year. And in a discussion about its climate action plan in December, the Walnut Creek City Council decided to work to persuade the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors to establish a county-wide Community Choice energy program. Certainly, with more and more cities jumping ship for MCE, Contra Costa County should consider the option.

A county-wide Community Choice program would benefit the county in many ways. It would mean that cities like Lafayette would not have to bear the cost of feasibility studies on their own. In addition, there are many unincorporated areas within Contra Costa County — such as Rodeo, Crocket, and Kensington — that do not have the option of establishing their own Community Choice programs  but might wish to join one. Add on the benefits to the environment and the local economy and it’s clear that establishing a Community Choice energy program in Contra Costa County would be a major step toward creating more sustainable, responsible, and resilient communities.

Alameda County: steady progress

8961efbc-3966-49b5-b5af-976f00dcd604Last June, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to take the first steps in establishing a Community Choice program, allocating $1.3 million in funding for an exploratory phase. Since then, the county’s Transportation and Planning Committee has reviewed many elements that will shape the program, including its goals, structure, and the role and composition of the advisory committee. The County’s Transportation and Planning Committee has stated a goal of launching the program as soon as possible, with a current estimated launch date of early 2017.

The East Bay Clean Power Alliance, of which the Bay Chapter is a member, has been closely following this process to ensure that Alameda County’s program emphasizes community participation, development of local renewable resources, and the creation of local clean-energy jobs.

County staff have just begun developing the application process for the advisory committee and are expecting the committee’s membership to be finalized by the end of March. The advisory committee will consist of Supervisors’ appointees and representatives of cities and other entities that are interested in participating in the Community Choice program.

San Francisco: unexpected breakthrough

IMG_0869After years of blocking progress on CleanPowerSF, this January San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee dropped his opposition to the city’s Community Choice program, allowing it to finally move forward. The success of the program is not assured, however; 2015 is an election year and we suspect the mayor’s support is not unconditional. This means we must ensure that CleanPowerSF is well on its way to launch and unable to be stalled or thwarted before Election Day on November 4th, 2015. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), which oversees the program, has pledged to launch CleanPowerSF by the end of the year. At present, however, it appears that the SFPUC is moving too slowly to meet that goal.

The SFPUC has decided to adopt a two-tiered pricing structure like that of Marin Clean Energy, which the Sierra Club has advocated for several years. Under this pricing structure, CleanPowerSF will sell two types of electricity. The base level, into which all customers will be automatically enrolled, will be generated from 50 percent renewable energy and will sell for less than PG&E’s standard, dirtier electricity. The low price will help keep customers in the program. CleanPowerSF will also offer a 100-percent renewable option for an as-yet-undetermined price.

Unfortunately, the SFPUC is delaying the formal setting of the program’s maximum electricity rates. Despite Commissioner Francesca Vietor calling for rates to be set in February, the SFPUC has put off this step — a prerequisite to getting CleanPowerSF up and running.

The Sierra Club will rally at 12:30 pm on Tuesday, April 28,  at San Francisco City Hall to ask the SFPUC to end the delays and finally provide a clean energy choice for San Francisco after 12 long years. Learn more here.

WhatYouCanDo

Want to advocate for Community Choice in your community? Add your name at www.bayareaenergychoice.org and we’ll be in touch with opportunities for you to make a difference.

Toxic tar sands at center of Phillips 66 plans for Bay Area

Forest and Mine Site

Canada’s boreal forest before and after tar sands mining.

As reported in the December-January Yodeler (read “Your help needed to protect California from the next oil-by-rail disaster”), energy giant Phillips 66 is fighting to upgrade its two-part San Francisco Refinery so that it can join the growing list of Bay Area refineries that receive and process highly toxic and explosive grades of “extreme” crude oil. Canadian tar sands oil is the crude grade intended for this project. Tar sands, or oil sands, come out of the ground as a solid mix of sand, clay, water, and bitumen — the most dense and viscous form of petroleum —which must then be diluted with highly-flammable solvents for transport. If the Phillips 66 project is approved, the diluted crude would travel south in mile-long trains, coming down the Feather River Canyon, over the delta, through Bay Area communities, and southward along the coast to the Santa Maria refinery. After being partially refined there, solvent-dissolved tar sands products would be sent back north through a 200-mile pipeline to the Rodeo refinery for production of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and recovery of propane and butane.

If approved, the project to bring Canadian tar sands to the Bay Area would threaten air quality, climate security, and public safety. Despite widespread outcry from communities living along the rail lines and in the shadows of the two refineries, the plan continues to gain approvals necessary to proceed. On February 4th, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors gave nearly-unanimous approval for a land-use permit for the Rodeo portion of the two-refinery project, with only District 1 supervisor John Gioia dissenting.

Phillips 66 has sought to minimize the perceived impacts of their plan by presenting these two proposed projects “piecemeal,” as if they were two distinct or separate projects. The company sought approvals for the changes it will need to make in order to switch to tar sands via at least five separate environmental reviews processes in two counties. This misleading practice is expressly prohibited under the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires the environmental impacts of all new projects or modifications be considered. As a result of the “piecemeal” approach, communities have to fight this project in both Contra Costa and San Luis Obispo Counties.

In early March, three separate lawsuits were filed against Contra Costa County and Phillips 66 — by Communities for a Better Environment, the Rodeo Citizens Association, and Safe Fuel Energy Resources of California, which represents the United Steel Workers union members at the Rodeo refinery — on exactly this rationale: that by failing to consider the linked refineries’ two projects as pieces of a larger plan to import and process tar sands they were underestimating its impacts on air pollution, climate, and safety.

Phillips 66 has been deliberately unclear about the true goal of these interrelated refinery upgrade projects: that being to enable them to switch from the type of crude being processed from a more “conventional” mixture of oils (supplies of which are dwindling worldwide) to cheaper Canadian tar sands. It is only through community groups’ and activists’ consistent watchdogging and digging deeper into the details that we know that Phillips 66 is switching over to the much more dangerous crude stock.

Canadian tar sands oil is one of the world’s dirtiest forms of fuel. Here are some of the facts:

  • Refining one barrel of oil from tar sands produces two-to-three times more climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions than refining a barrel of conventional oil.
  • Processing tar sands oil releases pollutants directly linked to asthma, emphysema, and birth defects into our air and water. Tar sands oil contains toxic heavy metals, including 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen, and five times more lead than conventional crude oil.
  • The derailment of a train carrying tar sands could start a fire that would burn for days, creating toxic air pollution, or spill into our waterways and pollute drinking water and precious ecological resources.
  • Super-heated, high sulfur, acidic tar sands is a perfect storm for accelerated corrosion that can lead to refinery explosions and fires, like the one that occurred at the Chevron Richmond refinery in August of 2012.
  • The process of releasing propane, gasoline, diesel, and other products from tar sands produces large quantities of petroleum coke (also known as petcoke), a solid waste product of the refining process that is exported and burned overseas as a cheap, yet more toxic, fuel source. Acid rain, anyone?

Given these facts, it only seems right that plans to import and refine Canadian tar sands should be shared openly with the public and subject to open debate. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Phillips 66 is already the most polluting refinery in California; and according to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Rodeo already has one of the highest asthma rates in the Bay Area. It’s time to stand up to Phillips 66 and fight for our health, safety, and climate.

WhatYouCanDo

Thousands of Californians have already sent in comments to the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors telling them to reject the second half of this dangerous project at the Santa Maria refinery. But letters will not be enough if we’re going to win this one. We’ll need as many people as possible to join us in San Luis Obispo to testify to the Planning Commission when they consider whether to approve this filthy project. The meeting should be scheduled for some time in April or May. To receive our notification about the hearing, make sure you are on the Bay Chapter’s email list. Go to www.sierraclub.org/sfbay/email and sign up for our “General” list. For specific information on this project or to get more involved with the Bay Chapter’s campaign against hazardous fossil fuels by rail, contact conservation organizer Ratha Lai at (510)848-0800 x 328 or ratha.lai@sierraclub.org.

— Charles Davidson

Richmond leads the fight against corporate money in elections

On March 11th, Sierra Club staff and volunteers stood outside Chevron’s Richmond refinery alongside community members, social-justice advocates, and local elected officials to announce the introduction of a shareholders resolution that would prevent the company from dumping money into the America’s elections. The resolution will be considered at Chevron’s annual shareholder meeting in May and is part of a growing movement of Americans fighting to take back our air, water, climate, and democracy from mega-polluters like Chevron and other corporate interests who try to buy their way our of regulation.

chevron shareholdersIn 2014, Chevron dumped over three million dollars into the election for four seats on the Richmond city council and the mayorship. Chevron bought a small army of canvassers, took over every billboard in the city, and flooded mailboxes with political advertising that featured an ugly smear campaign against the progressive Team Richmond candidates. Despite being outspent 20-1, the Sierra Club-endorsed candidates swept the election on their promise to hold the fossil fuel giant accountable for health, safety, and environmental transgressions at the local refinery.

Chevron’s obscene spending exemplifies the growing influence of corporations in our elections following the infamous Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, allowing corporations to be considered on equal footing as people when it comes to campaign donations. And Chevron’s political spending goes far beyond the election in Richmond. “Chevron has spent millions of dollars to try and roll back state and federal regulations to the detriment of our climate, our environment, our communities, and even the safety of their own workers,” said Bay Chapter director Michelle Myers as she announced the Sierra Club’s support of the shareholder resolution. “Unlimited corporate spending distorts our democracy and takes away the power of the people to fight polluters and transition to a clean-energy economy.”

We know that unchecked, Chevron will only continue to increase its political spending – in Richmond and anywhere else Chevron’s interests are challenged. Chevron’s bottom line is profit at any cost, which is inherently at odds with the basic needs and wants of our communities like Richmond: clean air, clean water, a stable climate, food to eat, and safe and reliable jobs. Richmond is far from the only company town dealing with deep-pocketed industry whose interests clash with those of the community and the environment. Getting the shareholder resolution passed is a long shot, but it is just one tactic in a larger campaign to educate and engage voters nationwide. And given what we saw in Richmond in November, there’s reason to be optimistic.

Richmond’s is a tale of two cities: one fighting fiercely to maintain an aging institution whose product threatens our climate, our health, and our very lives, and the other taking steps to move to a more equitable and just clean-energy future. Indeed, even as the refinery seeks to make the “upgrades” necessary to process higher-sulfur crude oil—a process that results in more toxic contaminants and carbon pollution being spewed into the air—Richmond’s residents and businesses are benefiting from renewable electricity from the state’s first Community Choice energy program, Marin Clean Energy. This is proof that a government elected by and for the people can serve the community’s best interests.

Ratha Lai

Bay Chapter advocates for stricter smog regulations to clean up California’s air

EPA smogLate last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to update the nation’s air quality standards for ground-level ozone — otherwise known as smog — based on extensive scientific evidence of its impacts on human health and the environment. Smog pollution, largely driven by the burning of fossil fuels, can trigger respiratory problems like asthma attacks, nervous system disorders and cardiovascular problems. Over time, exposure can lead to permanent lung damage and even premature death.

The proposed updates will improve public health protections, particularly for sensitive populations like children, the elderly, and people suffering from lung diseases such as asthma. The EPA estimates that lowering allowed levels of smog to a range of 65 to 70 parts per billion would prevent 320,000 to 960,000 asthma attacks and up to one million missed school days by 2025. The Sierra Club urges the EPA to go even further, lowering allowed smog levels to 60 parts per billion. You can read the full text of the EPA’s proposed rule at http://tinyurl.com/epasmog.

The EPA held public forums on the proposed updates in three places across the United States: Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, and Sacramento, California. According to the American Lung Association, California cities have the dirtiest air in the nation, so we knew we had to pack the hearing room with hundreds of people demanding clean air. The SF Bay Chapter, in coordination with Sierra Club entities from Southern California all the way to Washington, joined together to bring over 300 community members impacted by smog to attend the hearing in Sacramento and testify in favor of lowering allowed smog levels. In addition to bringing community leaders including recently-elected Richmond City Councilmember Eduardo Martinez, the Bay Chapter also filled a bus with approximately 50 fifth graders from an Oakland elementary school to pack the hearing room and show support for the EPA’s proposal.

Many of the Sierra Club representatives were young people of color, who are disproportionately impacted by industrial pollution; one recent study from the University of Minnesota found that on average, non-whites inhale 38 percent higher levels of air pollution than whites.

A memorable moment with the fifth graders was walking off the bus in Sacramento as they began chanting all by themselves: “What do we want? Clean air! When do we want it? NOW!” Despite their enthusiasm and energy, by the time we went into the hearing room they were respectful and quiet, demonstrating by their presence and their “I Love Clean Air” t-shirts that they respected the regulatory system in charge of protecting their air — and wanted it to reflect their needs.

For these fifth graders, the event was a powerful demonstration of their right to “peaceably assemble” and “petition the Government for a redress of Grievances.” This trip undoubtedly instilled a civic culture of grassroots participation in these young Americans.

Ratha Lai

Help determine the future of oil extraction in Alameda County

10984045_10152492757977723_3580958582661980563_nAlameda County has joined the fight against fracking. In September, the Transportation and Planning Committee of the Board of Supervisors took action directing staff to draft an ordinance to protect the county from any risky new oil drilling activity. The staff came back in January with a creative and comprehensive proposal, not simply addressing fracking, but also the overall issue of expanded oil exploration and extraction.

In California, counties and municipalities have the responsibility to regulate land use. This includes the right to issue conditional use permits to cover special uses of land for activities that would not be otherwise be allowed within a zoning district. Under the current East County Area Plan (ECAP) and the Alameda County Zoning Ordinance (ACZO), conditional use permits can be granted for oil and gas operations. Under the proposed changes to the zoning regulations, such conditional use permits would no longer be available. This change would be accomplished by removing all references in ECAP and ACZO to oil and gas exploration and extraction.

Predictably, opposition has surfaced. E&B Natural Resources, the only active well operator in Alameda County, has objected to any limitation on its operations despite declaring it has no plans to practice fracking on its current wells in the County. Under the proposal, E&B would not be allowed to drill new wells, though it would continue to possess a valid permit allowing the company to extract oil from its existing wells. Also coming out against the proposed changes were the California Cattlemen’s Association and Californians for Energy Independence.

thisoneIn their submission to the Board of Supervisors, Californians for Energy Independence — a coalition funded by the petroleum industry  to advocate against restrictions on oil production — advised rejection of the changes and adoption of a “wait and see” approach. As rationale for delaying county regulation, the group made the disingenuous claim that regulation at the state level can better protect the environment, through new procedures being developed by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). Yet, as recent news reports have described, the same state agency permitted protected, potable water aquifers in Kern County to be contaminated with saline produced water and waste water from fracked wells. E&B Natural Resources was one of several firms recently ordered by DOGGR to shut down waste water injection wells in Kern County.

However small the current footprint of fossil fuel extraction in Alameda County, any increase in such operations would build its own momentum and increase resistance to environmental oversight. The proposal would obviate the need to fight this battle permit by permit — a battle that no one should have to wage in an era of drought and climate change.

WhatYouCanDo

Opponents of fracking need to attend every public hearing that takes up this proposal. Look to the Chapter’s Activities and Events calendar online for updates. As it currently stands, the Alameda County Planning Commission will hold its second hearing on the matter at the County offices in Hayward at 224 West Winton Ave., Room 160 Auditorium at 6 pm on Monday, April 6.

Questions? Contact Rebecca Franke at dontfrackcal@gmail.com.

— Rebecca Franke

Richmond residents to Chevron: Get your dirty money out of politics

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Bay Chapter Conservation Manager Jess Dervin-Ackerman at the announcement of the resolution.

On Thursday, February 12th, Richmond residents, social justice advocates, elected officials, and Chevron shareholders announced a resolution being put forward at Chevron’s upcoming shareholders meeting that would prevent the company from dumping money into the political cycle. The resolution comes after Chevron spent more than $3 million to influence elections in Richmond — a small portion of the millions spent to influence elections at all levels across California and the country.

Despite being outspent 20-1, community leaders in Richmond defeated Chevron-backed candidates. Now the community is backing the resolution as part of ongoing efforts to reclaim their neighborhoods and put an end to Chevron’s pollution of their air, water, and democracy.

The events in Richmond and the Chevron shareholder resolution are part of a growing movement to beat back polluter-backed candidates and interests as communities work to clean up their environments and our democracy.

“Chevron flooded our democracy with millions of dollars in 2014, but Richmond voters saw through their attempt to buy our elections and the progressives candidates triumphed.  Chevron should refrain from its oversized influence on our local democracy if it has any desire to repair its profoundly damaged reputation among our community,” said city councilmember and former Richmond Mayor Gayle Mclaughlin.

In Richmond, a lot of us are living in poverty and therefore we tend to gravitate towards money. But with this last election we proved that like our health, our elections are not for sale! Chevron’s money is no longer good in Richmond. We choose to live, and vote for leaders who care for our health and shared wealth,said Sandy Saeteurn of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

IMG_7954

Richmond residents, social justice advocates, elected officials, and Chevron shareholders at the announcement of the resolution outside the Richmond Chevron headquarters.

The Chevron refinery in Richmond has a history of health, safety, and environmental problems, including an explosion in 2012 that sent 15,000 community members to the hospital. Yet instead of abiding by safeguards, the company has abused the political system to change the laws.

For a refinery that is under probation until the end of 2015 after pleading ‘no contest’ to six counts of criminal negligence for the fire of 2012, Chevron has proceeded as if money could help the community forget while it tried to buy a city council. Moving to clean energy is vital and Chevron should be finding ways to transition instead of processing dirtier crude.  The bottom line should be human health and safety, not profits.  If their disregard for the community did not outweigh their good works, we would be finding solutions to global warming together,” said Eduardo Martinez, recently elected city councilmember.

“Chevron has resisted the will of the people for too long and has demonstrated a perverse willingness to spend escalating obscene amounts of money to try and impose their will. Fortunately the people of Richmond are strong and we have shown that we will not back down in the face of their corporate bullying. History has shown us in Richmond that when the people organize they can demand accountability. Shareholders should be ashamed and demand an end to this kind of behavior,” said Andrés Soto, Richmond resident and social justice advocate.

Representatives from the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN).

Representatives from the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN).

“Chevron continues to try to throw its weight around like a bully on the playground as it drowns local elections with a flood of shareholder dollars in an attempt to influence local decision making and democracy,” stated Leslie Samuelrich, President of Green Century Capital Management. “Shareholders don’t want to keep footing the bill for Chevron’s failed gambles in politics, and are calling on the company to put an end to political contributions.”

“Chevron has spent millions of dollars to try and roll back state and federal regulations to the detriment of our climate, our environment, our communities, and even the safety of their own workers,” said Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter Director Michelle Myers. “We support the community of Richmond and Chevron shareholders in calling for Chevron to stop corrupting our democracy.”

Raising climate awareness at the pump

A working concept of Berkeley’s gas pump warning label. Credit: 350 Bay Area.

A working concept of Berkeley’s gas pump warning label. Credit: 350 Bay Area.

The Sierra Club supports two local proposals currently working through the Berkeley City Council and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mandate labels at gas stations informing consumers of the link between driving, carbon dioxide emissions, and climate disruption.

In San Francisco, Supervisor John Avalos introduced the ordinance “Greenhouse Gas Information Labels for Gas Pumps,” which will be debated at the Land Use Committee in early 2015—likely as soon as mid-February. As for Berkeley, in November the City Council voted to direct the City Manager to draft an ordinance requiring the posting of the gas station warning labels. Once a draft is finalized, it will go back to the Environmental and Energy Commissions for approval before returning to the Council for adoption later in the spring.

It is important that consumers be given the tools they need to make informed decisions. Educating consumers at the point of purchase raises awareness of the connection between their action and its effects; in this case, that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming. The strategy of warning drivers of the global consequences of filling up the tank is comparable to printing graphic images of diseased lungs on cigarette cartons; in both cases, the goal is to encourage consumers to think twice about their purchase, and ultimately cut down on their purchases.

Although the final gas pump label language has not been determined for either city, proposed designs inform the consumer about how much tailpipe carbon dioxide is produced by burning one gallon of fuel, and explain that carbon dioxide emissions are a significant factor in recent climate change. One proposed design for San Francisco’s label provides a resource for people wishing to make changes; directing people to the website sfclimate.org gives the city the opportunity to highlight numerous ways to reduce gasoline use — from improving mileage to avoiding solo driving altogether, by car-pooling, taking public transit, biking, or walking.

Gas pump warning labels have the potential to be part of the larger strategy for the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco to seriously address climate change.

S.F. Board of Supervisors passes new support for local clean power

Photo of Hetch Hetchy by Cowgirl Jules on Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo of Hetch Hetchy by Cowgirl Jules on Flickr Creative Commons.

In a move that will help San Francisco reach its carbon-reduction goals, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance that will increase the amount of clean and renewable energy flowing to the city. The legislation, sponsored by Supervisors Scott Wiener and London Breed, authorizes the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (the SFPUC) to sell much more excess hydroelectric power from the Hetch Hetchy dam system to local development projects. This policy will enable the SFPUC to reduce the City’s greenhouse-gas emissions, sell the hydro power at rates that reflect its real value, and support the City’s developing Community Choice energy program, CleanPowerSF.

Currently, the SFPUC sells most of its excess hydro power at under-market wholesale rates to municipalities outside of San Francisco. The Supervisors’ action authorizes the SFPUC to  sell the greenhouse-gas-free power at higher retail rates to large new developments here in the City (such as the new Transbay Transit Terminal project) and also to the CleanPowerSF program. PG&E is currently the default power provider in the city.

By authorizing the sale of surplus power at higher rates, the new policy will boost the SFPUC’s budget by tens of millions of dollars per year, which it can use to cover current budget shortfalls and pay for clean energy and streetlight projects that are badly in need of funds.

The legislation will also help spur the creation of new renewable energy projects in California. Cities that formerly purchased greenhouse-gas-free power from Hetch Hetchy at bargain-basement prices will now have to buy and build new clean energy sources of their own to meet climate action goals.

When it was originally introduced in July 2014, the legislation did not contain any support for CleanPowerSF. The Sierra Club and other clean energy advocates successfully pushed for an amendment that makes CleanPowerSF—once launched—a priority customer for the surplus hydro power. This amendment will help ensure that CleanPowerSF will be more cost-competitive and reliable.

The San Francisco Department of the Environment has stated that the City cannot meet its aggressive climate action goals without implementing a strong CleanPowerSF program, which would provide the City with at least 50% of its electricity from clean, local sources within the next decade. By contrast, PG&E’s power mix is only 20% renewable. CleanPowerSF will help San Francisco reduce its reliance on dirty and dangerous fossil fuels and transition to a 100% clean-energy economy. By strengthening CleanPowerSF and giving the city first right to excess hydro power, this new ordinance facilitates San Francisco’s energy transition and helps achieve climate goals.

—Eric Brooks

Read more about CleanPowerSF in “Clean-energy advocates demand mayor restore CleanpowerSF language to San Francisco Climate Action Strategy” and “CleanPowerSF deleted from San Francisco Climate Action Strategy“.

 

Taking down Goliath in Richmond—progressive Team Richmond defies Chevron’s millions to sweep elections

IMG_5198With checks on political spending falling away left and right, the strength of our democracy was tested this election cycle. But voters proved that democracy is alive and well in Richmond. Chevron—whose 3,000-acre refinery in the town is the state’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter—spent close to 4 million dollars on political ads with the goal of packing the city council and mayor’s office with industry-friendly candidates. Avalanches of mailers, television spots, web ads, billboards, and canvassers targeted local progressive candidates who promised to hold Chevron accountable, and forced Richmond residents to endure one of the nastiest political smear campaigns in history. Despite negative reactions from the community, Chevron kept the lies flowing all the way to the end of Election Day.

The Bay Chapter endorsed a slate of progressive city council candidates who banded together as “Team Richmond”: termed-out mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, and Planning Commissioner Eduardo Martinez. Martinez is a member of the Bay Chapter’s West Contra Costa County Executive Committee. The Club also endorsed Jael Myrick for a two-year term city council seat and Tom Butt for mayor.

Sierra Club members and supporters joined in the grassroots efforts to help Team Richmond defeat the corporate-backed candidates. We made phone calls, walked precincts, passed out slate cards, and put in as many hours as we could. And the hard work paid off: all five Sierra Club-endorsed candidates won, with McLaughlin, Beckles, and Martinez coming in first, second, and third place respectively; Myrick receiving 52% of the vote, with his closest competitor (Corky Booze) garnering only 31%; and Mayor-elect Butt taking 51% of the vote, with Chevron-backed Nat Bates coming a distant second with 35% of the vote.

Sierra Club volunteers, including Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton (center) at Team Richmond headquarters on Election Day.

Sierra Club volunteers, including Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton (center), at Team Richmond headquarters on Election Day.

Chevron’s campaign of lies only made Team Richmond stronger, helping to attract a loyal volunteer base that wanted a local government that would provide responsible oversight for the refinery’s 1-billion-dollar modernization project; aggressively pursue a lawsuit against the oil giant over the 2012 refinery fire; and generally provide strong oversight. Sierra Club member Victoria Stewart exemplified the passion of Team Richmond supporters, volunteering to knock on doors despite being in chemotherapy.

Richmond’s neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by the fossil fuel industry. The entire city lies in the blast zone of a potential oil-train explosion; our children breathe in the toxic emissions from the refinery; and our neighbors suffer the consequences when lax safety standards cause fires and other refinery accidents. Our newly-elected city government understands these threats and will work to correct them. Just a few weeks before the election, Mayor McLaughlin brought a resolution to the city council to formally denounce crude by rail and call upon the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to revoke Kinder Morgan’s permit for shipping highly explosive and toxic Bakken Shale oil into Richmond—a permit that was issued in secrecy. That same night, the candidates made stopping bomb trains and all fossil fuels by rail a priority cause. On election night, Richmond’s voters delivered five strong allies in the fight to turn away from our dependence on fossil fuels, and toward a safe and secure clean-energy future.

—Ratha Lai