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A Tale of Two Cities: One Planning for the 2050s, the Other for the 1950s

If a climate emergency resolution is to mean anything or is to be taken seriously, it must mean that the government in question puts a halt to the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure expansion within its jurisdiction.

A customer pumps gas at a Shell gas station on July 30, 2020 in San Rafael, California. Royal Dutch Shell reported second quarter adjusted earnings of $638 million compared to a net profit of $3.5 billion one year earlier. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A customer pumps gas at a Shell gas station on July 30, 2020 in San Rafael, California. Royal Dutch Shell reported second quarter adjusted earnings of $638 million compared to a net profit of $3.5 billion one year earlier. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This is a tale of two cities, separated by a mere eleven miles, each with radically different approaches to local planning in the midst of one hell of a climate emergency. Petaluma and Novato are two cities in San Francisco’s North Bay community. The region has been pummeled by a series of unprecedented enormous wildfires over the past six years. This past September it included what locals call “the orange sky day.” It was a day when the smoke from the regional wildfires was so thick that the sun was blotted out and it was dark all morning. When it did finally start to get light around noon, the sky had an apocalyptic orange hue that lingered for days.

Events like the orange sky day in other parts of the world, be they droughts, floods, heatwaves or other anomalous weather, are in part what has inspired nearly 2000 governments large and small around the world to adopt climate emergency resolutions. Most of the cities in San Francisco’s North Bay have adopted such resolutions and that includes Novato in Marin County, that just adopted its resolution in November 2020, and Petaluma in Sonoma County that has had theirs on the books since May 2019.

In every drop that comes out of a gasoline dispenser, there is a trail of devastation for communities and the environment around the world that leads all the way back to the point of extraction of crude oil from the ground.

If a climate emergency resolution is to mean anything or is to be taken seriously, it must mean that the government in question puts a halt to the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure expansion within its jurisdiction. There does not appear to be universal understanding or acceptance of this basic logic, summed up pretty well by the adage “if you are already in a hole, stop digging.”

On February 22, 2021 two events were juxtaposed that illuminate the stark difference in policy direction. On that night in Novato, the Planning Commission voted to approve a 28-dispenser mega gas station at an existing Costco store. If built, it will be the largest gas station in Marin County in a location where about ten others are already in operation. The Novato City Council subsequently approved it against a strong showing of public opposition.  

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On that same February night in Petaluma, the City Council voted unanimously to adopt an ordinance that permanently prohibits the construction of new gas stations within Petaluma city limits. Petaluma recognizes the climate crisis, the need for improved active and public transportation options, the changing market dynamics around gasoline and gas cars, the advances in electric vehicle technology, and the state-level policy trends aiming for economic decarbonization, and wisely is planning for 2050. Novato, tragically, is still planning for 1950.

In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities themes include social justice and good vs. evil. In every drop that comes out of a gasoline dispenser, there is a trail of devastation for communities and the environment around the world that leads all the way back to the point of extraction of crude oil from the ground. People and wildlife are poisoned and/or displaced by effluent and emissions from these operations. Low income communities along rail and roadways are threatened by the hazard of oil and gas transportation. Communities of color near refineries and gas processing facilities face respiratory disorders, cancer, and death rates much higher than the national average. Indigenous communities around the world are severely impacted by pumping and pipelines. There are choices to be made at the local level that have impacts far beyond their city limits. It is high time to end this century-plus of evil and injustice.

Petaluma was allegedly the first city in the nation to adopt its new gas station prohibition and work is underway to leverage it. In Sonoma County, a grassroots group called the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations (CONGAS) rose up in mid 2019 in opposition to a proposed gas station which was defeated, Since then, two other gas station proposals have been defeated. 

No one wants to spend their time battling proposals to build obsolete polluting infrastructure, so CONGAS focuses its efforts on changing outdated 20thcentury rules that are still on the books in counties and cities that allow gas stations to be built like they are ice cream stands. The time is right for a movement to include other cities and counties throughout the U.S. and the world. Local governments must plan for 2050, not 1950.

Woody Hastings

Woody Hastings is the co-coordinator of the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations and is the Energy Program Manager for The Climate Center. He can be reached at congas.contact@gmail.com

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