May 5, 2016

Crucial hearing of bills to halt coal exports on 4/12 — Make a call to show your support!

coaltrainOn Tuesday, April 12th, at 1:30 pm, two important coal-busting bills will be heard in the Senate Transportation Committee. Introduced by Senator Loni Hancock, the two bills are intended to restrict coal exports through California. Senator Hancock wrote the bills in reaction to the dangerous proposal to export coal through the Oakland army base redevelopment.

  • SB 1277 would protect residents and workers in West Oakland by declaring that the transportation, loading, and unloading of coal through West Oakland would present a danger to health and safety. It also requires a supplemental environmental impact review of the use of the terminal for the shipment of coal pursuant to CEQA. Read and download a fact sheet here.
  •  SB 1279 would prohibit the California Transportation Commission from allocating any state funds for any project at a port facility located at, or adjacent to, a disadvantaged community if it exports, or plans to export, coal from California. Read and download a fact sheet here.

WhatYouCanDo

Senator Hancock has asked supporters of her bills to call Democratic Transportation Committee members before this crucial Tuesday hearing. If you live in any of these representatives’ districts, please make a call today! (Bay Area senators in bold)

  • Senator Jim Beall (Committee Chair) (District 15: San Jose, Campbell, Cupertino, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, and Saratoga): (408) 558-1295
  • Senator Anthony Cannella (Vice Chair) (District 12: Central Valley between Modesto and Fresno): (916) 651-4012
  • Senator Benjamin Allen (District 26: Southern California): (310) 318-6994
  • Senator Patricia C. Bates (District 36: Orange and San Diego counties): (916) 651-4036
  • Senator Ted Gaines (District 11: Northeast California): (916) 651-4001
  • Senator Cathleen Galgiani (District 5: San Joaquin County and portions of Stanislaus and Sacramento Counties): (916) 651-4005
  • Senator Connie M. Leyva (District 20: parts of San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties): (916) 651-4020
  • Senator Mike McGuire (District 2: North Coast / North Bay including Marin County): (415) 479-6612
  • Senator Tony Mendoza (District 32: parts of Los Angeles and Orange counties): (916) 651-4032
  • Senator Richard D. Roth (District 31: Riverside County): (916) 651-4031
  • Senator Bob Wieckowski (District 10: Southern Alameda County and part of Santa Clara County): (510) 794-3900

Tell them:

  • Transportation of coal through our communities creates health, safety, and climate problems.
  • Funding projects and developments that contribute to pollution and climate change is contrary to the state’s goals.
  • West Oakland, the location of the proposed coal terminal, is already heavily impacted by pollution and related health impacts, including asthma, cancer, and heart disease.
  • Proposition 1B funds are supposed to be restricted to projects that reduce pollutant emissions. Yet $176 million in 1B funds have gone to the redevelopment of the former Oakland Army Base, site of the proposed coal terminal, which would increase emissions.

Community urges Benicia City Council to deny Valero’s dangerous oil-train proposal

Opponents of Valero’s oil train proposal rallied in front of city hall before the Benicia City Council hearing.

Opponents of Valero’s oil train proposal rallied in front of city hall before the Benicia City Council hearing.

On April 4, scores of concerned Californians converged on Benicia City Hall to urge the city council to reject Valero’s plan to transport volatile crude to its Bay Area refinery in dangerous oil trains. In February, local planning commissioners unanimously rejected the proposal, which would send two 50-tanker oil trains through California communities each day. Valero appealed that decision to the city council. Given the intense public interest in the crude-by-rail project, the city council has scheduled four public hearing dates this month.

Before Monday’s city council hearing began, opponents of Valero’s dangerous plan held a rally in front of city hall. Rally speakers included Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguín and Andres Soto of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, as well as a local business owner and a senior scientist from Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice organization. Benicia residents were joined by members of “up-rail” communities (including Sacramento and Davis) who would be endangered by the oil trains rolling through their cities and towns on the way to the Valero refinery. Oil train derailments and explosions have skyrocketed in recent years — including the July 2013 derailment in Lac-Megantic, Canada that killed 47 people and obliterated several city blocks.

Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguín addressed the crowd at the rally outside Benicia City Hall.

Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguín addressed the crowd at the rally outside Benicia City Hall.

Inside the city council chambers, public comment began with testimony by a series of elected officials and agency representatives concerned by the risks posed by Valero’s oil train project. Speaking on behalf of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (which represents six counties and 22 cities), Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor urged the Benicia City Council to consider impacts on up-rail communities, including the 260,000 people in the Sacramento region who live within a quarter-mile of the railroad tracks. A representative from the Sacramento City Unified School District noted that 17 schools in the district are within the “blast zone” that would be put at risk by explosive oil trains on the railroad tracks. Other speakers included Berkeley Vice-Mayor Linda Maio and representatives testifying on behalf of up-rail air quality management districts, the City of Davis, and State Senator Lois Wolk.

After the elected officials and agency representatives spoke, residents of Benicia and up-rail communities voiced their concerns about the severe public health and environmental risks posed by Valero’s proposal. Although a few people expressed support for the project, the majority opposed it. Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community presented the city council with a petition — compiled along with the Sierra Club, Stand, CREDO, Center for Biological Diversity, and 350 Sacramento — with 4,081 signatures of people opposed to Valero’s oil train project.
Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community presented the city council with a petition signed by over 4,000 people who are opposed to Valero’s oil train project.

Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community presented the city council with a petition signed by over 4,000 people who are opposed to Valero’s oil train project.

In addition to urging the Benicia City Council to uphold the permit denial, many speakers urged the council to reject Valero’s request to delay the appeal process. At a city council meeting last month, Valero unexpectedly asked the council to put the appeal on hold while the company seeks a declaratory order from the federal Surface Transportation Board regarding the scope of the legal doctrine of preemption. Valero has insisted that federal regulation of railroads means that Benicia is prohibited from considering the project’s impacts on communities and sensitive environments along the rail line (including derailments, oil spills, and explosions).

At the Benicia Planning Commission hearings in February, attorneys from the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Stanford Law School clinic refuted this expansive interpretation of the preemption doctrine, and the commissioners ultimately rejected Valero’s interpretation as overly broad. Notably, the California Attorney General has previously weighed in on the shortcomings of the city’s environmental review, and specifically noted the failure to adequately analyze impacts to up-rail communities. Valero has not offered a compelling rationale for why the Attorney General would request that analysis if preemption renders those impacts irrelevant. The oil industry’s self-serving interpretation of preemption was also recently rejected by planning staff in San Luis Obispo County, who recommended denial of a similar oil train proposal at a Phillips 66 refinery due in large part to the environmental and health impacts along the rail line.

Rallying in front of Benicia City Hall.

Rallying in front of Benicia City Hall.

In a letter submitted to the Benicia City Council last week, the Sierra Club and our allies explained why federal law does not preempt Benicia from denying the permit for Valero’s project. The letter also reiterated that the project’s local impacts, especially increases in refinery pollution, require the city to deny the permit. For years, the Sierra Club and our partners have pushed back against Valero’s efforts to hide the true impacts of its oil train proposal — including submitting comments at each stage of the environmental review process. Our allies in these efforts include NRDC, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, Stand (formerly ForestEthics), Communities for a Better Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, SF Baykeeper, and Sunflower Alliance, among others.

Additional city council hearings are scheduled for April 6, 18, and 19, as needed for public comment and council action.

WhatYouCanDo

Submit a comment to the Benicia City Council: Take Action: Protect California’s communities from explosive oil trains!

Make a call for state bills restricting coal exports

Senator Hancock at the announcement of the four-bill package.

Senator Hancock at the announcement of the four-bill package.

State Senator Loni Hancock has introduced four bills designed to restrict coal exports in California. Now she needs our help to turn these bills into law!

Neither Assemblymember Tony Thurmond nor Assemblymember Rob Bonta have agreed to co-sponsor the bills yet. It would be helpful for many of us to call their offices.  It just takes a minute.

  • Assemblymember Bonta: (916)319-2018 or (510)286-1670
  • Assemblymember Thurmond: (916)319-2015 or (510)286-1400

Tell them you oppose coal exports through California and you want them to co-sponsor Senator Hancock’s bills against coal.

Here are brief summaries of the four bills:

  • Senate Bill 1277 declares that the transportation of coal through West Oakland presents a clear and present danger to the health and safety of Oakland residents as well as the workers that would handle the coal.
  • Senate Bill 1278 would require an environmental impact review from any public agency relating to the shipment of coal through the city of Oakland.
  • Senate Bill 1279 would prohibit the use of public funds for any port that exports coal from California.
  • Senate Bill 1280 would require port facilities that ship bulk commodities and receive state funds to prohibit coal shipments.

Senator Hancock introduced these four bills in reaction to the dangerous proposal to export coal through the Oakland army base redevelopment. “I was shocked when I first learned that a development project on the former Oakland Army Base would export millions of tons of coal to China and other countries,” Hancock said during an announcement at her District Office in downtown Oakland. “As the state senator for this area, I cannot sit by while the residents of West Oakland face their own Keystone Pipeline. Truth is, the proposed coal depot is so problematic that I believe it warrants a multi-bill response.”

Unfortunately, however, these bills are not retroactive and so would not be able to prevent the Oakland coal-export project. The legislation would instead close loopholes in the law and ensure that other cities will not face similar problems in the future.

Senator Hancock has joined many local, state, and national voices urging the Oakland City Council to use its authority to protect the local community and global climate by prohibiting coal exports from the army base redevelopment.

Updates on the campaign to stop coal exports through Oakland

Activists rally against coal outside Oakland City Hall

Activists rally against coal outside Oakland City Hall

The developers of an export terminal on City-owned land on the Oakland waterfront have solicited a partnership with four Utah counties to export up to ten million tons of coal through Oakland each year. The plan would make Oakland the largest coal-export facility on the West Coast, and would increase national coal exports by a whopping 19 percent. It would mean long, dusty coal trains coming through our communities, compromising public health, worker safety, and climate security. Here’s an update on our campaign to stop the dirty deal.

Poll reveals over 75% of Oakland voters oppose coal exports

The Sierra Club recently released the results of a new survey of Oakland voters’ attitudes toward the coal-export proposal. The survey, which was conducted by the California-based polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, found overwhelming public opposition to transporting coal by rail through Oakland to this terminal for export overseas.

After hearing a brief and balanced debate on the issue — including a strong argument from supporters — more than three-quarters of Oakland voters (76%) say they oppose the coal-export proposal. This includes 57% who say they are “strongly” opposed. This suggests the more that people hear about the proposal, the more they agree it is an unnecessary and risky part of an otherwise important plan to build a new export terminal in West Oakland.

The survey also suggests that Oakland City Councilmembers who oppose this proposal will enjoy greater support from voters. By a nearly three-to-one margin, voters say they would be more likely to vote for a member of the city council who opposed the coal-export proposal.

Bay Chapter organizer Brittany King summed up the survey results: “This poll clearly demonstrates what we’ve learned from our conversations on the ground with Oakland residents: they do not want dirty coal.”

So where does the coal-export proposal stand?

The Oakland City Council has the authority to block coal exports at the army base redevelopment given the serious health and safety risks it poses. On February 16th, the city council was scheduled to approve spending nearly $250,000 to hire consultants from Environmental Science Associates (ESA) to review information gathered at a September hearing on public health and safety impacts of coal exports, and produce findings. However, prior to the February council meeting, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf released a statement urging the council to postpone contracting with ESA in order to evaluate more options. She also stated that she “remains strongly opposed to the transport of coal and crude oil through our city and committed to upholding our city policy.” The item was pulled from the agenda with council agreeing to revisit the coal issue in April.

State & national leaders weigh in

In late February, State Senator Loni Hancock introduced four bills to restrict the export and transportation of coal in California. However, Senator Hancock made it clear that the bills are not retroactive (they couldn’t stop coal exports from the project in question) and urged the Oakland City Council to uses its authority to protect its community and prohibit coal exports from the army base redevelopment.

Van Jones, a political commentator for CNN and the president and founder of the “Green For All” campaign, shared his opposition to the proposal in the San Francisco Chronicle, stating that “coal is a dying industry, and it shouldn’t be allowed to take the people of West Oakland down with it.”

City must act soon

While the city council continues to delay action, the developers and coal interests are working behind the scenes to get the project started. Earlier this month, the Utah state legislature passed a bill that invests 53 million taxpayer dollars in the project. This Utah government funding puts the project developers one step closer to being able to push this risky deal through.

The Oakland City Council must act quickly and use their legal authority to ban coal exports, making it clear that they stand with the growing list of elected officials, community leaders, and the 76% of Oakland voters who oppose coal exports in Oakland.

Rather than invest in dirty fuels, Oakland should invest in clean-energy solutions that will bring good jobs, cleaner air and water, and a more secure economic future to the people of Oakland.

Want to get involved? Contact brittany.king@sierraclub.org or (510)848-0800. Learn more about this campaign on our website.

Brittany King

Big Oil’s hostile takeover

tesoro+by+RADARLate last year we succeeded in getting the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board to deny its own staff’s “swiss cheese” proposal for a cap on refinery emissions (it was riddled with exemptions and loopholes). The Air District also agreed that our coalition’s proposal for numeric emission limits should be included in the next draft of the rule. These victories have teed up what could be a historic and monumental year for limits on pollution, including greenhouse gases, from the Bay Area’s five refineries. But it won’t be easy. Big Oil is engaged in an all-out effort to take over our environmental and public health safeguards at all levels of government.

Recently, a Republican majority — including members who were helped to their position by the oil industry — took over the South Coast Air Quality Management District board. The board then fired its long-time executive director, Dr. Barry Wallestein, who was widely recognized as a strong and capable architect of some of the world’s most advanced and innovative air pollution control measures. Thanks to regulations that were rolled out under Dr. Wallestein’s oversight, refineries in Southern California emit less toxic pollution than our own refineries here in the Bay Area. (State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León is working on a bill to add three new seats to the State Air Resources board — two environmental justice members and a public health expert — to counter the Republicans’ rollback of progress for the environment and public health.)

Dr. Wallenstein’s firing was a shocking demonstration of the oil industry’s ability to control another of the agencies that regulate it. The dismissal of such a committed advocate for the community and the environment at the Bay Area Air District’s southern counterpart can be seen as a direct threat to our own efforts to reel in industry excesses. A cap on refinery emissions will be our best protection against unchecked pollution — but it too could abruptly get dismissed, just like Dr. Barry Wallstein.

Let’s be honest here; we can’t expect Big Oil to give up its stranded assets without trying to salvage some money out of their gamble on extreme fuels. And that means we can expect BIG money to be spent on ads, lobbying, and campaign contributions to push their agenda. The last election cycle, Chevron dropped over three million dollars in political spending to blanket Richmond with advertising for pro-industry candidates. Fortunately for Richmond (and humanity), Chevron lost to a coalition of progressive Richmond councilmembers. But Big Oil wins as many, or more, as it loses. Statewide, the oil industry spent $11.3 million on advertising to force the Senate President and governor to abandon the historic oil-reduction goals in State Bill 350. We have to exercise the tools of democracy to fight back by holding elected leaders accountable to us, the voters — not the oil industry.

But many agency officials, like our own Air District executive director Jack Broadbent, are not elected. The grim reality is that there is little we can do to protect against the revolving door of ex-public officials joining industry for huge paydays. After all, Jack Broadbent has been good to the oil industry, allowing explosive oil trains with no public notice; rubber-stamping Phillips 66’s controversial tar sands permits; and trying to claim that a loophole-riddled proposal for emission limits is the best protection for our communities. Let’s just say there’s little chance the oil industry will target Broadbent for removal.

Jack Broadbent recently delayed action on the emission-cap rule from May of this year to December — dangerously close to a board transition that will likely make the Air District even more oil-friendly. That means the next seven or eight months could be our best and last opportunity to get legitimate rules that safeguard our communities against increasing refinery pollution.

Given the industry’s move to take over public agencies, we have to do everything we can to get the board to vote on the strongest possible emission-cap rules, and to stick as close as possible to the May deadline.

WhatYouCanDo

This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. We need volunteer leaders to lead canvassing, phone-banking, and other outreach efforts. We are planning a community forum to tell the truth about the refinery rules and what we need to do as a community to protect our health and safety:

What: “Spare Our Air,” a community forum on emission caps
When: Thursday, April 21st, 6 to 8 pm
Where: Grace Lutheran Church, 24th & Barrett, Richmond

New people are encouraged to attend the forum, while regulars are encouraged to attend a possible Air District meeting on April 20th, at which the board will be voting on a rule to increase and improve air monitoring.

To volunteer or to learn more about either event, contact Ratha Lai at ratha.lai at sierraclub.org or (510)848-0800.

Ratha Lai

Contra Costa votes ‘Yes’ to Community Choice

Pittsburg students in support of Community Choice. Photo courtesy Carol Weed.

Pittsburg students in support of Community Choice. Photo courtesy Carol Weed.

On March 15th, Community Choice energy won a big victory in Contra Costa County, increasing the likelihood that every corner of the county will be served by a local clean-energy program in the not-too-distant future.

After a long discussion, which included testimony by a large number of residents, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to proceed with a technical (“feasibility”) study that will make a cost-benefit analysis of three options for bringing Community Choice to Contra Costa:

  1. Form a stand-alone Community Choice energy program including unincorporated areas of the county and all interested cities;
  2. Join Marin Clean Energy (MCE), the state’s first Community Choice energy program, which is currently serving customers in neighboring Marin County, unincorporated Napa County, and the cities of Benicia, El Cerrito, Richmond, and San Pablo; or
  3. Partner with Alameda County’s nascent Community Choice energy program.

What are the next steps?

County staff recommends creating an advisory committee with representation by each of the committed cities and the county to define the scope of the study. In addition to fiscal issues, both supervisors and speakers expressed an interest in an assessment of the potential for economic development, job creation, and a response to environmental-justice concerns. A request by two speakers for citizen representation on the committee was not addressed.

Staff estimates the study could be completed by October. The county approved $300,000 to cover its portion of the study and the staff time required; cities will be asked to fund a remaining $100,000 for the study on a per-capita basis. Meanwhile, two cities have acted independently.

Lafayette & Walnut Creek go to MCE

The Lafayette City Council voted unanimously to join MCE — a decision that came after nearly two years of study, several public presentations, and an online public survey. Lafayette will become the fourth Contra Costa city to join MCE (after Richmond, San Pablo, and El Cerrito). Walnut Creek became the fifth city when it voted 3:1 to also join MCE.

Being a city more than twice the size of Lafayette and with a much larger number of commercial energy customers, Walnut Creek had been torn between the choice of joining MCE and continuing to push for a stand-alone Community Choice program for Contra Costa. Both Walnut Creek and Lafayette must undergo a two-month-long membership analysis by MCE before public outreach will begin, leading to the switch-over from PG&E to MCE as the default electricity provider. The switch is estimated to occur as soon as August. Customers will then have the opportunity to opt-out of MCE to remain with PG&E.

Carol Weed, Contra Costa Clean Energy Alliance

Sierra Club and Ecology Center co-present webinar series on local climate campaigns — March 9 event on Community Choice

CaVfDhKUsAEGdjnThe Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter and the Ecology Center present a new series called Changemakers for Climate. Each month, a panel of environmental activists, policy makers, and experts will gather to discuss local campaigns to combat climate disruption. Sierra Club organizer Ratha Lai will moderate the discussions, which will explore topics such as crude by rail, Bay Area coal exports, Community Choice energy, and refinery emission regulations.

The Changemakers programs will focus on local actions, and draw connections to air quality, public health and safety, green jobs, and environmental justice. The goal of the series is to empower Bay Area residents with the knowledge and tools they need to get engaged in tackling these issues in their own backyards. The public can participate in the events in person or via a live webinar broadcast. Recordings of the events will be posted online and will serve as an educational resource.

“When people think of the Bay Area they often think of us as being at the forefront of the environmental movement — and that’s true in many ways,” said Ratha Lai, Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter organizer and host of the Changemakers program. “Today, the Bay Area is leading in the development of Community Choice energy programs, which are a key tool in the transition away from fossil fuels to clean and renewable power. But we also have five oil refineries fighting tooth and nail to bring in dirtier and more dangerous grades of crude oil. We have gigantic piles of coal and petcoke sitting uncovered just a stone’s throw from the Bay. And we’re still dealing with the threat of a massive coal-export proposal in Oakland that would make things a lot worse for people who already suffer disproportionately from air pollution.” Lai added: “Whether you’ve never attended a public hearing or you’re already deep in the trenches, our monthly Changemakers programs will get you up to speed on our climate campaigns and prepare you to take action.”

“We are at a crossroads where most people are very concerned about climate change, but may not know where to start to tackle these issues,” says Rebecca Milliken, Climate Action Coordinator for the Ecology Center. “Changemakers for Climate brings together experts and community members to break down these policy issues into specific actions.

The next Changemakers event will focus on local clean-energy programs:

WHAT: March Changemakers for Climate program on Community Choice energy
DATE: Wednesday, March 9, 2016
TIME: 6 to 7 pm
PLACE: Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter office, 2530 San Pablo Ave, Suite I, Berkeley
OR join the webinar here
PANELISTS:
Alex DiGiorgio, Community Development Manager, Marin Clean Energy
Jessica Tovar, staff organizer for the Local Clean Energy Alliance
Colin Miller, program manager for the Local Clean Energy Alliance
John M. Gioia, Contra Costa County Supervisor
Luis Amezcua, Chair, Energy and Climate Committee, Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter

The March 9th Changemakers program will focus on Community Choice Aggregation, the innovative energy model that allows local municipalities to provide residents and businesses with clean, renewable energy. Community Choice energy 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 can then provide clean power to local customers by purchasing renewable energy on the open market or by building local renewable resources. 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.

Support local green-energy project at March 1 public hearing on MCE Solar One

Richmond Mayor Tom at the future site of Solar One. Photo courtesy the mayor's Twitter account.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt at the future site of Solar One. Photo courtesy the mayor’s Twitter account.

Update 2/27: The appeal of the Solar One construction permit was withdrawn by the third-party appellant from outside the community, meaning that MCE is free to continue with construction of the Bay Area’s largest publicly owned solar project! Solar One is expected to come online in November 2016.

The construction of one of the largest publicly-owned solar projects in the Bay Area is at risk, and we need your help to get it back on track.

Last year, California’s first Community Choice energy program, Marin Clean Energy (MCE), finalized an agreement with Chevron to lease a 60-acre brownfield in Richmond for the construction of a 10.5-megawatt solar facility known as Solar One. This solar farm will produce enough energy to power 3,400 homes per year. With the help of RichmondBUILD, at least half of the workforce used to install these panels will be from the City of Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo. The construction jobs will pay prevailing wages.

In November, the Richmond Design Review Board (DRB) granted a permit for MCE Solar One’s construction. This permit was appealed by an opposing third party from outside of the community.

RichmondBUILD students complete a solar installation project.

RichmondBUILD students complete a solar installation project. Photo courtesy the City of Richmond.

On March 1, during Richmond’s regularly scheduled City Council Meeting, public comment will be allowed, giving speakers 3 minutes to state their opposition to the appeal. Join us!

When: Tuesday, March 1 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Community Services Building, 440 Civic Center Plaza, Richmond, CA 94804

Solar One is made possible by MCE’s Deep Green customers, all of whom contribute to a local development fund with their monthly electric bills. Local clean-energy development — bringing with it jobs, economic investment, and energy independence — is just one of the many benefits of Community Choice energy. Read more about the innovative energy model at www.bayareaenergychoice.org.

Benicia Planning Commissioners unanimously reject Valero’s oil train proposal

Benicia City Hall was still packed at 11:30pm on night 3 of of the Planning Commission hearings.

Benicia City Hall was still packed at 11:30pm on night 3 of of the Planning Commission hearings.

Benicia is a small waterside city near San Francisco that is perhaps best known for briefly serving as the California state capital in the 1800s. But last week, six planning commissioners in this quiet community dealt a blow to the oil industry when they unanimously rejected oil giant Valero’s proposal to transport crude to its local refinery in dangerous oil trains. Valero’s plan to receive two 50-tanker oil trains each day at the Benicia refinery is emblematic of broader industry efforts to ramp up transport of oil — including dirty tar sands crude from Canada and explosive Bakken crude from North Dakota — in mile-long trains to refineries along the West Coast.

The 6-0 vote came shortly before midnight on Thursday, February 11th — after four consecutive nights of public hearings that lasted until 11 pm or later. When the hearings began at Benicia City Hall on Monday evening, more than 150 people had signed up to speak and the crowd filled the hearing room, several overflow rooms, and the building’s courtyard. The commissioners heard from scores of concerned Benicia residents — and also from residents of “up-rail” towns and cities (including Sacramento and Davis) who would be endangered by the oil trains rolling through their communities on the way to the Valero refinery. Oil train derailments and explosions have increased dramatically in recent years — including the July 2013 oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Canada that tragically killed 47 people.

Linda Maio, Vice Mayor of the City of Berkeley, California, speaking to the Benicia Planning Commission.

Linda Maio, Vice Mayor of the City of Berkeley, California, speaking to the Benicia Planning Commission.

In denying the project, the commissioners went against City planning staff’s recommendation to approve Valero’s proposal. Staff recommended approval despite concluding that the benefits do not outweigh the numerous “significant and unavoidable” impacts on up-rail communities (including derailments, oil spills, and explosions). The staff report insisted that federal regulation of railroads means that the legal doctrine of preemption prohibits the City from mitigating — or even considering — any of the serious risks that oil trains pose to communities and sensitive environments along the rail line.

During the public hearing, the contract attorney hired by the City repeatedly told the commissioners that they unquestionably lack any authority to deny the permit based on these rail impacts — and went so far as to say that mere disclosure of these impacts could be unlawful.

Attorneys from the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Stanford Law School clinic testified at the hearing, refuting this expansive interpretation of the preemption doctrine and urging the commissioners to reject it. Before voting to deny the project, several commissioners expressed skepticism that they are legally required to turn a blind eye to the grave dangers that oil trains pose to up-rail communities. One commissioner told the contract attorney that his interpretation of the preemption issue is “180 degrees different” from the view expressed by other attorneys. (Using more colorful language, another commissioner noted: “I don’t want to be the planning commissioner in the one city that said ‘screw you’ to up-rail cities.”)

Benicia residents came to City Hall to voice their opposition to Valero’s oil train project.

Benicia residents came to City Hall to voice their opposition to Valero’s oil train project.

For years, the Sierra Club and our partners have pushed back against Valero’s attempts to conceal the true impacts of its oil train proposal. The City initially tried to approve the project without conducting full environmental review. In 2013, we submitted comments challenging that course of action, which contributed to the City’s decision to circulate an “environmental impact report” (EIR) for the project. We then submitted comment letters identifying major flaws in the the draft EIR (2014), revised draft EIR (2015), and final EIR (2016). Our allies in these efforts include Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, NRDC, ForestEthics, Communities for a Better Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, Sunflower Alliance, and SF Baykeeper, among others.

The Attorney General also weighed in on the inadequacies of the City’s environmental review — specifically noting the failure to adequately analyze impacts on up-rail communities. And the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which represents 6 counties and 22 cities, characterized the City’s environmental review as “a non-response” to its public safety concerns about oil trains traversing the Sacramento area.

After voting to deny the project, the Planning Commission issued a resolution identifying 14 deficiencies in the final environmental impact report. The resolution also concluded that “Staff’s interpretation of preemption is too broad….” (Notably, just a few days before the Benicia hearings, hundreds of people converged on San Luis Obispo to urge county planning commissioners to reject a similar oil train proposal at a Phillips 66 refinery. In direct contrast to the position adopted by the Benicia planning staff, the San Luis Obispo county planning staff recommended denial of the project — due in large part to the environmental and health impacts along the rail line. The San Luis Obispo planning commissioners are expected to vote on the Phillips 66 proposal in March.)

Valero has until February 29th to appeal the Planning Commission’s decision to the Benicia City Council.

Elly Benson is an associate attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program

New poll reveals that over 75 percent of Oakland voters oppose coal-export proposal

Faith leaders of all denominations lined up against Oakland coal exports.

Faith leaders of all denominations lined up against Oakland coal exports.

Yesterday evening, leaders from diverse faith communities came together to oppose the proposal to export coal through Oakland, and to call on the Oakland City Council to protect their communities by standing up to out of state coal companies. At the faith leaders’ rally, which was followed by a prayer vigil, the Sierra Club also released a new poll that found that 76 percent of Oakland voters oppose the coal export proposal.

The poll found that 47 percent of Oakland voters have heard about the proposal to transport coal through their city, and these voters are decidedly against it. After hearing arguments from both sides, an overwhelming 76 percent of voters say they oppose the proposal. This includes a majority (57%) who oppose it “strongly.” The poll suggests that this issue will be important to 2016 voters; 48 percent of respondents say they would be more likely to vote for a council member who opposes coal, while just 17 percent would be less likely.

Nearly half of Oakland voters (47%) reported having already heard or read something about the issue of coal exports, and these voters are decidedly against the proposal (70% oppose vs. 14% support). The intensity of their opposition is remarkable, with 55% saying they "strongly oppose" the proposal to transport coal by rail through Oakland.

Nearly half of Oakland voters (47%) reported having already heard or read something about the issue of coal exports, and these voters are decidedly against the proposal (70% oppose vs. 14% support). The intensity of their opposition is remarkable, with 55% saying they “strongly oppose” the proposal to transport coal by rail through Oakland.

“No community, rich or poor, should endure the effects of coal. But the environmental inequity of the coal terminal proposal cannot be disregarded,” said Rev. Kenneth Chambers, pastor of West Side Missionary Baptist Church in Oakland. “West Oakland already bears a disproportionate burden of pollution, of toxic contamination from diesel exhaust spewing from thruways crisscrossing through the community. Life expectancy of West Oakland residents is far below the life expectancy of residents in the Oakland hills, and West Oakland tenants are twice as likely to visit emergency rooms for asthma as the rest of Alameda County. The West Oakland community cannot afford to have any more pollution dumped on us. We ask the City Council to stand with us over polluters and profits.”

By nearly a three-to-one margin, voters in Oakland say they would be more likely to vote for a member of the City Council who opposed the proposal to transport coal by rail through the city for export.

By nearly a three-to-one margin, voters in Oakland say they would be more likely to vote for a member of the City Council who opposed the proposal to transport coal by rail through the city for export.

Faith leaders have been deeply engaged in the campaign to stop coal exports in Oakland. Congregations throughout Oakland have hosted teach-ins on the health, safety and climate impacts of coal. In addition to local Oakland clergy, prominent Bay Area faith leaders from the Jewish, Roman Catholic and Episcopal communities including the Executive Director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Marv Goodman, former President of the Jesuit School of Theology, Thomas Massaro, and Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus, have all spoken out against coal and signed onto a letter drafted by California Interfaith Power & Light, urging the City Council to ban coal exports.

“As a resident of West Oakland, a person with respiratory challenges and a faith leader, I am profoundly concerned about the health and environmental impacts of transporting coal through our city,” said Archdeacon of the diocese of California, Carolyn Bolton. “I strongly oppose the development of a coal terminal in our already vulnerable and highly impacted community.”

“Oakland should not be involved in shipping coal overseas, since this fossil fuel is the major contributor to climate change,” said Margaret Rossoff of the Sunflower Alliance. “Coal needs to be left in the ground and replaced with renewable resources.”

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A one-month-old air filter shows how dirty Oakland’s air is already.

“This poll clearly demonstrates what we’ve learned from our conversations on the ground with Oaklanders,” said Brittany King of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Oakland residents do not want dirty coal exports in their city. The City Council has the legal authority to ban coal due to the health and safety risk this dangerous commodity poses to Oakland residents. It’s time for our elected leaders to make it clear that they stand with the 76% of Oakland voters who oppose coal exports in Oakland.

This survey should send a clear message to the Oakland City Council: voters are decidedly opposed to the idea of transporting dirty coal through their city. By nearly a three-to-one margin, voters in Oakland say they would be more likely to vote for a member of the City Council who opposed the proposal to transport coal by rail through the city for export. And poll results suggest that the more that people hear about the proposal, the more they agree it is an unnecessary and risky part of an otherwise important plan to build a new export terminal in West Oakland. Rather than invest in the dirty fuels of the past, Oakland City Council members should be investing in the clean energy solutions that will bring good jobs, cleaner air and water, and a more secure economic future to the people of Oakland.

“No community, rich or poor, should endure the effects of coal. But the environmental inequity of the coal terminal proposal cannot be disregarded,” said Rev. Kenneth Chambers, pastor of West Side Missionary Baptist Church in Oakland.

“No community, rich or poor, should endure the effects of coal. But the environmental inequity of the coal terminal proposal cannot be disregarded,” said Rev. Kenneth Chambers, pastor of West Side Missionary Baptist Church in Oakland.

Background: A portion of the former Oakland Army Base is being developed as a bulk export facility, known as the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT). CCIG, the developer, promised not include coal as a commodity handled by the terminal, but now they are soliciting a partnership with four Utah counties that could allow the state to export up to 10 million tons of coal from their mines each year. A Utah funding body approved $53 million to buy space at Oakland Bulk Terminal for these exports. This deal is being conducted behind the backs of the Oakland City Council and the Port, both of oppose coal as a commodity for shipping in Oakland. Additionally, the developer promised residents that the city-owned port would be coal free. While the Mayor, members of the council and residents have demanded a stop to these talks, the developer has yet to abandon the plans.

Those opposing the plan to export coal through Oakland have voiced concerns over how this decision will affect the community’s safety, the environment, and public health. According to a national train company, each open-top rail car of coal can lose up to one ton of dust between the mines and the port, resulting in the release of 60,000 pounds of toxic fine particulate matter in communities near the rails. Additionally, this deal will stifle California’s strong commitment to cutting carbon pollution, especially as the state continues to suffer from extreme drought, forest fires, and other signs of climate disruption.

Read more in the Yodeler and on our website.