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Port of San Francisco urged to restrict fossil fuels

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portofsf_jeremyredingThe San Francisco Board of Supervisors is urging the Port of San Francisco and the city’s Department of the Environment to develop policies that will bar the transportation and export of hazardous fuel materials in San Francisco.

Supervisors Malia Cohen and Scott Wiener introduced the resolution to prohibit the movement of crude oil, coal, and petroleum coke (petcoke) through San Francisco, citing safety concerns, dangers to the environment, public-health hazards, economic pitfalls, and public opposition. The resolution passed the board unanimously last week.

“San Francisco has always been known as a city at the forefront of environmental change. This resolution barring the handling of polluting, climate-warming fuels proves yet again that it is a city that leads the world in envisioning a better way to live,” said Stacey Geis, Earthjustice managing attorney of the California office.

San Francisco does not currently export fossil fuels, but the coal and oil industries have strong footholds in other parts of the Bay Area. In the next two years the number of rail cars carrying oil into the Bay Area is forecast to increase 20-fold to 200,000. Four refineries in the East Bay process heavy crude oil and some are planning to bring in oil from the Canadian tar sands, which is dirtier and more carbon-intensive than conventional crude.

While the action in San Francisco is largely symbolic, it could have significant ramifications up and down the West Coast. The oil and coal industries have serious pending proposals to move coal and oil through Pacific Northwest export terminals; they are also facing stiff opposition.

Oil from North Dakota, which is also coming into the Bay Area, is highly combustible and raises safety worries in communities along the railways. Meanwhile, coal dust and diesel particulate matter from the numerous mile-long, open-top trains that transport coal into the Bay Area for shipment overseas pose significant air and water quality threats to Bay Area families. On average, the BNSF estimates that each uncovered rail car can potentially lose up to 500 pounds of coal per trip, or more than 60,000 pounds lost per train. Coal breaks apart easily to create dust that contains lead, arsenic, uranium, and hundreds of other heavy metal toxins harmful to fish and human health. Coal dust also can contribute to train derailments.

Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter director Michelle Myers said, “There is a growing consensus that it’s well past time to turn away from the practices that have brought us to the brink of global climate catastrophe. If San Francisco wants to be a global environmental leader, we have to say ‘no’ to dirty fossil fuels and invest our resources in developing the 100% clean-energy future we need. Other Bay Area communities are already moving forward with Community Choice energy programs while San Francisco’s CleanPowerSF program remains bogged down by city politics and special-interest lobbying.”

Ultimately, port action to prevent the handling and export of fossil fuels could take many forms. The Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter and its partners—including the Asian Pacific Environmental Network,
Communities for a Better Environment, Earthjustice, San Francisco Baykeeper, and West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project—will continue to work with city and port officials to ensure that the port implements a policy that protects San Francisco from the dangers of fossil-fuel exports.

If the port were to officially limit the handling of dirty fossil-fuel commodities, it would be the first such policy in the nation. No fossil fuels are currently handled at the port, and its leaders have shown a willingness to take action to prevent future exports at their facilities. As soon as next month, the port will issue a request for proposals for an iron ore terminal at Pier 96. The port has indicated that the RFP will include official language barring proposals for projects that would handle fossil fuels.

The board vote comes in the context of increased public awareness of and opposition to the health and safety impacts of the transport of fossil fuels through Bay Area communities. Due to strong community organizing, coal-, petcoke-, and oil-export facilities have been unable to move forward along much of the West Coast. A number of communities in California have passed resolutions opposing the transport of fossil fuels by rail, including Berkeley, Richmond, and, most recently, Oakland.

More action: On Wednesday (15 October) the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board unanimously approved a resolution to:

Track and monitor Bay Area oil refinery emissions;

Establish a cap on refinery emissions; and

Require a further 20 percent reduction in refinery emissions.

(The Bay Area is home to five of the dirtiest oil refineries in California., and 0il refining is the largest industrial air polluter in the region. According to the Sierra Club, the oil industry’s substantial contribution to regional air pollution “disproportionately harms communities and workers near its refineries. The oil industry’s region-wide move to refine more ‘extreme’ oil, such as tar sands and heavy gas oil, could increase refinery emissions substantially.”)

Small steps in the battle to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

Image: Port of San Francisco by Jeremy Reding via Flickr CC

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